UM-Led Team Selected for $8.2 Million NASA Grant to Study Evolution of Life

October 10, 2014

MISSOULA – A team led by University of Montana researcher Frank Rosenzweig has been selected for a five-year, $8.2 million NASA grant to study how life evolved and became more complex on Earth.

Space agency officials believe that a better understanding of how life arises, propagates and becomes increasingly complex will help them find and recognize it elsewhere in the universe.

Rosenzweig’s team was one of seven nationwide selected to receive grants that totaled $50 million to assist NASA with astrobiology research. The title of his group’s successful 177-page proposal was “Reliving the History of Life: Experimental Evolution of Major Transitions.” A video about the NASA award is online at http://bit.ly/111C5oQ.

“We will study major evolutionary transitions in the history of life that have led to increases in biocomplexity,” Rosenzweig said. “These transitions include the evolution of metabolic networks, the evolution of multicellularity and the evolution of cooperative or symbiotic relationships among cells.

“In various ways we are going to try to rewind the tape of the history of life on Earth and study its most important moments in the lab using all the advanced genetic techniques now available,” he said. “By better understanding how these transitions occur in the systems that evolved on our planet, we can be more alert to life-forms of varying complexity on other worlds.”

UM’s partner institutions on the project are Stanford University; the University of Colorado, Boulder; the University of New Hampshire; the University of New Mexico; the Santa Fe Institute; and the University of Pennsylvania.

Rosenzweig said his research team will become part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, headquartered at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

Research team members at UM will include Rosenzweig, John McCutcheon, Scott Miller, Matthew Herron, Margie Kinnersley and Eric Smith. Each summer Smith, who is affiliated with the Santa Fe Institute, will be a UM scholar-in-residence.

Rosenzweig said the overarching question for their research is this: What forces bring about the major transitions in the evolution of biocomplexity? Researchers also will delve into how enzymes and metabolic networks evolve; how mitochondria – the power plants of cells –evolve; how cells start working together on the road to multicellularity; and processes that constrain the evolution of novel traits.

Other institutions receiving NASA astrobiology awards include the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Goddard Space Flight Center and the Ames Research Laboratory.

“This new NASA partnership illustrates the tremendously impactful work by our scientists at the University of Montana,” UM President Royce Engstrom said. “Dr. Rosenzweig and his colleagues are among the world leaders in understanding how life develops. When you look at the other institutions that received funding in this competition, you realize what a research powerhouse we have at UM.”

Rosenzweig said the grant will bring the equivalent of 15 “person-years” of postdoctoral salaries to UM, as well as 20 person-years of graduate-research assistantships. “So it will create opportunities to grow our graduate program,” he said. It also will provide 20 fellowships for undergraduates working in University labs.

An annual meeting of all principal investigators and their teams involved with the project will take place every year at UM, Rosenzweig said. Open forums to let the public know about the research are planned, as well as symposia at the Flathead Lake Biological Station involving NASA Astrobiology Institute partners from across the nation.

“It’s humbling to bring an award of this magnitude to Montana,” he said. “I’m also really proud of the team that I’m associated with. It’s kind of a ‘Who’s Who’ list of young guns in the study of evolutionary genetics.”

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Contact: Frank Rosenzweig, UM biology professor and researcher, 406-243-4834, frank.rosenzweig@umontana.edu.