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2009 Annual Science Report

University of Hawaii, Manoa Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

Amino Acid Alphabet Evolution

Project Summary

All life on earth uses a standard “alphabet” of just 20 amino acids. Members of this alphabet links together into different sequences to form proteins that then interact to produce living metabolism (rather like the English of 26 letters can be linked into words that interact in sentences and paragraphs to produce meaningful writing). However, a wealth of scientific research from diverse disciplines points to the idea that many other amino acids are made by non-biological processes throughout the universe: put simply, we have no idea why life has “chosen” the members of its standard alphabet. Our project seeks to gather and organize the disparate information that describes these non-biological amino acids, to understand their properties and potential for making proteins and thus to understand better whether the biology that we know is a clever, predictable solution to making biology – or just one of countless possible solutions that may exist elsewhere.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

We have begun to plan and develop a completely re-worked infrastructure for the XML database at the heart of this project. We have begun to amass the literature sources for diverse views on the amino acid “chemistry space” available to early life. Co-I Freeland has developed and submitted a research proposal to the NASA Exobiology program that extends and expands the detailed plans for developing Aim #1, “The chemistry space of amino acids”. This includes collaboration with new individuals: John Handley is an industrial statistician (working with the Xerox corporation), who desires to apply his skills to the study of evolutionary astrobiology; Brian White is a biochemistry instructor at UMass Boston who is pioneering “active learning” activities for undergraduate education.

    Stephen Freeland
    Project Investigator

    Gayle Philip

    Rich Gazan
    Unspecified Role

    Robert Szilagyi
    Unspecified Role

    Objective 1.1
    Formation and evolution of habitable planets.

    Objective 3.1
    Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts

    Objective 3.2
    Origins and evolution of functional biomolecules

    Objective 3.4
    Origins of cellularity and protobiological systems

    Objective 4.1
    Earth's early biosphere.

    Objective 4.3
    Effects of extraterrestrial events upon the biosphere

    Objective 5.1
    Environment-dependent, molecular evolution in microorganisms

    Objective 5.3
    Biochemical adaptation to extreme environments

    Objective 6.2
    Adaptation and evolution of life beyond Earth

    Objective 7.1
    Biosignatures to be sought in Solar System materials

    Objective 7.2
    Biosignatures to be sought in nearby planetary systems