Wednesday, February 28, 2024

U joins search for outer space life

April 2, 2001

A group of MSU scientists have been asked by NASA to join in the search for life throughout the universe.

Through a $5 million grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, MSU will establish a research center for the study of astrobiology early this summer and seek to answer some of the questions which have plagued mankind for centuries.

How does life begin and evolve?

Does life exist elsewhere in the universe?

What is the future of life on Earth and beyond?

Mike Thomashow, a professor of crop and soil sciences, is one of the scientists who will begin to study the parameters of life in outer space.

“NASA has established the Astrobiology Institute, which is a cooperative effort between 15 research universities and three international research institutes,” he said. “What we are specifically interested in is: What are the environmental limits for life? And what kind of extreme conditions can life exist under?”

The MSU research center will be focused on investigating how life exists and adapts at very low temperatures, a common feature of outer space, moons and planets, Thomashow said.

“What we would like to know more about are the genetic mechanisms that enable life to occur at sub-freezing temperatures,” he said. “Finding out how these organisms can evolve to live in these kinds of conditions will hopefully help us address some of the questions NASA is asking us.”

In addition to shedding some light on possible life elsewhere in the universe, the research could have numerous practical applications as well such as improving the stress tolerance of crops and the quality of pharmaceutical drugs, Thomashow said.

Joining Thomashow on the team is James Tiedje, a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics and crop and soil sciences.

Tiedje has been collaborating with Russian scientists to isolate organisms which have lived for millions of years in a continuously frozen section of Siberia.

“These organisms must have some unique features to be able to live under these conditions,” he said. “Somehow they have been able to adapt and we want to study the features that have kept them alive.”

Tiedje began his work on this subject more than five years ago.

“Our research will provide an important complement to the other research centers,” Tiedje said. “By learning how life on earth lives on under extreme conditions, we may be able to further understand life in outer space.”

As scientists retrieve data from the frozen organisms it will be collected into databases which will organize and analyze the information, said James Cole, an assistant professor in the MSU Center for Microbial Ecology.

“Our group’s database expertise will help maintain the data that will be derived from the project,” he said.

Cole’s group of computer programers will supply the software to compare the data.

“It’s going to be very interesting,” he said. “We are all very excited to be working on this project with so many great scientific minds.”

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