Michigan State University
Center for Genomic and Evolutionary Studies on Microbial Life at Low Temperature
Low temperature is a predominant environmental characteristic of interstellar space and our solar system, including most of the planets, their satellites, and asteroids and meteors. Understanding the impact of low temperatures on responses and evolution of biological organisms is integral to our knowledge of astrobiology. This area is the overarching research theme of the Michigan State University (MSU) Team.
Research Focus Areas
- Structural and functional genomic and proteomic analyses of bacteria isolated from the Arctic and Antarctic permafrost
Fundamental objectives of this work are: (1) determining how genome expression is affected by low temperature and dehydration, two cardinal characteristics of subfreezing environments and (2) identifying genes and proteins that enable bacteria to inhabit cold environments. Questions related to these objectives include: (1) What genes and proteins enable the permafrost bacteria to inhabit these subfreezing environments? (2) Do they have specific “freezing tolerance” genes and proteins, or “specialized alleles” of commonly found bacterial genes, or both? (3) How is expression of the bacterial genome affected by low temperatures and other conditions that “hitchhiker” bacteria might encounter during travel through space on natural objects or spacecraft?
- Direct examination studies of bacterial adaptation to low temperatures
“Test-tube evolution” experiments provide insight into how an organism, with a given complement of genes, can cross niche barriers that are defined by decreasing temperatures.
- Use information gained to explore potential development of “signatures” for the presence of life in cold environments, including Earth and other bodies such as Mars and Europa.
Background Perspective on MSU Astrobiology Research
- Areas of research expertise
Lines of interrelated investigations in our research call for a broad range of expertise. Our investigators have diverse backgrounds, training and research interests. These include: microbial ecology; isolation and characterization of permafrost bacteria; permafrost geology and geochemistry; molecular genetics and gene regulation; evolution and population genetics; cryobiology and mechanisms of freezing tolerance; proteomics and protein evolution; and structural genomics.
- General research goals and applications
Beyond research relating to multiple goals outlined in the “Astrobiology Roadmap,” the MSU Team research contributes to this additional goal for applying their work: “provide understanding of the response of life to the space environment, from gene expression to microbial evolution.” Additionally, there are significant potential practical applications of our work, ranging from: (a) identification of genes that may be used to confer improved environmental stress tolerance in crop plants to (b) discovery of enzymes uniquely suited to catalysis at low temperature, a characteristic of importance in numerous biotechnology applications.
- Evolution of research
With research developments, the next generation of questions will evolve. For instance, the structural genomic and gene expression profiling studies will lead to lines of investigation focused on specific genes with these objectives: establishing their roles in cold tolerance; determining their modes of action; and developing hypotheses as to how the genes evolve.
- Possible additional lines of investigation
Interaction with NAI researchers will likely develop additional lines of investigation. An example is this: (1) MSU conducts experiments to determine how bacterial gene expression and evolution are affected by conditions that relate to the space environment, with a major focus on cold temperatures; and (2) Other NAI members find it useful to understand how microorganisms react (gene expression and evolution) to other environmental conditions of space (such as the Martian atmosphere and regolith or perhaps microgravity and solar radiation). Research collaboration may develop from this interaction. An underlying goal of our program is to work with NAI to define mutual research interests and develop collaborative research efforts to address fundamental questions in astrobiology