From The Arizona State University (US): “New astrobiology research predicts life ‘as we don’t know it'”

From The Arizona State University (US)

February 28, 2022

Karin Valentine
Media Relations & Marketing manager,
School of Earth and Space Exploration
480-965-9345
Karin.Valentine@asu.edu

In new research published in the PNAS, a team of scientists has tackled this restriction by identifying universal patterns in the chemistry of life that do not appear to depend on specific molecules. These findings provide a new opportunity for predicting features of alien life with different biochemistry to Earth life.

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Artist’s conception of a planetary lineup showing habitable-zone exoplanets [unidentified] with similarities to Earth, featured on the far right. Credit: The NASA Ames Research Center/JPL-Caltech.

“We want to have new tools for identifying and even predicting features of life as we don’t know it,” says co-author Sara Imari Walker of Arizona State University. “To do so, we are aiming to identify the universal laws that should apply to any biochemical system. This includes developing quantitative theory for the origins of life, and using theory and statistics to guide our search for life on other planets.”

On Earth, life emerges from the interplay of hundreds of chemical compounds and reactions. Some of these compounds and reactions are found across all organisms, creating a universally shared biochemistry for all life on Earth. This notion of universality, though, is specific to known biochemistry and does not allow for predictions about examples not yet observed.

“We are not just the molecules that are part of our bodies; we, as living things, are an emergent property of the interactions of the many molecules we are made of,” says Walker, who is an associate professor at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and School of Complex Adaptive Systems and the deputy director of ASU’s Beyond Center. “What our work is doing is aiming to develop ways of turning that philosophical insight into testable scientific hypotheses.”

Lead author Dylan Gagler, who graduated from ASU in 2020 with his master’s degree and is now a bioinformatics analyst at New York University Langone Medical Center in Manhattan, said he became interested in universal biology out of a desire to better understand the phenomenon of life. “It’s a surprisingly difficult concept to pin down,” he says. “As far as I can tell, life is ultimately a biochemical process, so I wanted to explore what life is doing at that level.”

Gagler and Walker ultimately decided that enzymes, as the functional drivers of biochemistry, were a good way to approach this concept. Using the Integrated Microbial Genomes and Microbiomes database, they, together with their collaborators, were able to investigate the enzymatic makeup of bacteria, archaea and eukarya, and thereby capture the majority of Earth’s biochemistry.

Through this approach, the team was able to discover a new kind of biochemical universality by identifying statistical patterns in the biochemical function of enzymes shared across the tree of life. In so doing, they verified that statistical patterns originated from functional principles that cannot be explained by the common set of enzyme functions used by all known life, and identified scaling relationships associated with general types of functions.

“We identified this new kind of biochemical universality from the large-scale statistical patterns of biochemistry and found they are more generalizable to unknown forms of life compared to the traditional one decribed by the specific molecules and reactions that are common to all life on Earth,” explains co-author Hyunju Kim, an assistant research professor at ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and ASU’s Beyond Center. “This discovery enables us to develop a new theory for the general rules of life, which can guide us in the search for novel examples of life.”

“We might expect these results to hold anywhere in the universe, and that’s an exciting possibility that motivates a lot of interesting work ahead,” says co-author Chris Kempes of the Santa Fe Institute.

Additional authors on this study are Bradley Karas, John Malloy and Veronica Mierzejewski of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration; and Aaron Goldman of Oberlin College and the Blue Marble Space Institute for Science.

This is the first major research resulting from the ASU-led team participating in the inaugural Interdisciplinary Consortia for Astrobiology Research program, funded through NASA’s Astrobiology Program. The breadth and depth of the research of the teams selected for ICAR fundings spans the spectrum of astrobiology research, from cosmic origins and planetary system formation to the origins and evolution of life and the search for life beyond Earth.

See the full article here .

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The Arizona State University (US) is a public research university in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Founded in 1885 by the 13th Arizona Territorial Legislature, Arizona State University is one of the largest public universities by enrollment in the U.S.

One of three universities governed by the Arizona Board of Regents, Arizona State University is a member of the Universities Research Association (US) and classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very High Research Activity.” Arizona State University has nearly 150,000 students attending classes, with more than 38,000 students attending online, and 90,000 undergraduates and more nearly 20,000 postgraduates across its five campuses and four regional learning centers throughout Arizona. Arizona State University offers 350 degree options from its 17 colleges and more than 170 cross-discipline centers and institutes for undergraduates students, as well as more than 400 graduate degree and certificate programs. The Arizona State Sun Devils compete in 26 varsity-level sports in the NCAA Division I Pac-12 Conference and is home to over 1,100 registered student organizations.

Arizona State University’s charter, approved by the board of regents in 2014, is based on the New American University model created by Arizona State University President Michael M. Crow upon his appointment as the institution’s 16th president in 2002. It defines Arizona State University as “a comprehensive public research university, measured not by whom it excludes, but rather by whom it includes and how they succeed; advancing research and discovery of public value; and assuming fundamental responsibility for the economic, social, cultural and overall health of the communities it serves.” The model is widely credited with boosting Arizona State University’s acceptance rate and increasing class size.

The university’s faculty of more than 4,700 scholars has included 5 Nobel laureates, 6 Pulitzer Prize winners, 4 MacArthur Fellows, and 19 National Academy of Sciences members. Additionally, among the faculty are 180 Fulbright Program American Scholars, 72 National Endowment for the Humanities fellows, 38 American Council of Learned Societies fellows, 36 members of the Guggenheim Fellowship, 21 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 3 members of National Academy of Inventors, 9 National Academy of Engineering members and 3 National Academy of Medicine members. The National Academies has bestowed “highly prestigious” recognition on 227 ASU faculty members.

History

Arizona State University was established as the Territorial Normal School at Tempe on March 12, 1885, when the 13th Arizona Territorial Legislature passed an act to create a normal school to train teachers for the Arizona Territory. The campus consisted of a single, four-room schoolhouse on a 20-acre plot largely donated by Tempe residents George and Martha Wilson. Classes began with 33 students on February 8, 1886. The curriculum evolved over the years and the name was changed several times; the institution was also known as Tempe Normal School of Arizona (1889–1903), Tempe Normal School (1903–1925), Tempe State Teachers College (1925–1929), Arizona State Teachers College (1929–1945), Arizona State College (1945–1958) and, by a 2–1 margin of the state’s voters, Arizona State University in 1958.

In 1923, the school stopped offering high school courses and added a high school diploma to the admissions requirements. In 1925, the school became the Tempe State Teachers College and offered four-year Bachelor of Education degrees as well as two-year teaching certificates. In 1929, the 9th Arizona State Legislature authorized Bachelor of Arts in Education degrees as well, and the school was renamed the Arizona State Teachers College. Under the 30-year tenure of president Arthur John Matthews (1900–1930), the school was given all-college student status. The first dormitories built in the state were constructed under his supervision in 1902. Of the 18 buildings constructed while Matthews was president, six are still in use. Matthews envisioned an “evergreen campus,” with many shrubs brought to the campus, and implemented the planting of 110 Mexican Fan Palms on what is now known as Palm Walk, a century-old landmark of the Tempe campus.

During the Great Depression, Ralph Waldo Swetman was hired to succeed President Matthews, coming to Arizona State Teachers College in 1930 from Humboldt State Teachers College where he had served as president. He served a three-year term, during which he focused on improving teacher-training programs. During his tenure, enrollment at the college doubled, topping the 1,000 mark for the first time. Matthews also conceived of a self-supported summer session at the school at Arizona State Teachers College, a first for the school.

1930–1989

In 1933, Grady Gammage, then president of Arizona State Teachers College at Flagstaff, became president of Arizona State Teachers College at Tempe, beginning a tenure that would last for nearly 28 years, second only to Swetman’s 30 years at the college’s helm. Like President Arthur John Matthews before him, Gammage oversaw the construction of several buildings on the Tempe campus. He also guided the development of the university’s graduate programs; the first Master of Arts in Education was awarded in 1938, the first Doctor of Education degree in 1954 and 10 non-teaching master’s degrees were approved by the Arizona Board of Regents in 1956. During his presidency, the school’s name was changed to Arizona State College in 1945, and finally to Arizona State University in 1958. At the time, two other names were considered: Tempe University and State University at Tempe. Among Gammage’s greatest achievements in Tempe was the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed construction of what is Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium/ASU Gammage. One of the university’s hallmark buildings, Arizona State University Gammage was completed in 1964, five years after the president’s (and Wright’s) death.

Gammage was succeeded by Harold D. Richardson, who had served the school earlier in a variety of roles beginning in 1939, including director of graduate studies, college registrar, dean of instruction, dean of the College of Education and academic vice president. Although filling the role of acting president of the university for just nine months (Dec. 1959 to Sept. 1960), Richardson laid the groundwork for the future recruitment and appointment of well-credentialed research science faculty.

By the 1960s, under G. Homer Durham, the university’s 11th president, Arizona State University began to expand its curriculum by establishing several new colleges and, in 1961, the Arizona Board of Regents authorized doctoral degree programs in six fields, including Doctor of Philosophy. By the end of his nine-year tenure, Arizona State University had more than doubled enrollment, reporting 23,000 in 1969.

The next three presidents—Harry K. Newburn (1969–71), John W. Schwada (1971–81) and J. Russell Nelson (1981–89), including and Interim President Richard Peck (1989), led the university to increased academic stature, the establishment of the Arizona State University West campus in 1984 and its subsequent construction in 1986, a focus on computer-assisted learning and research, and rising enrollment.

1990–present

Under the leadership of Lattie F. Coor, president from 1990 to 2002, Arizona State University grew through the creation of the Polytechnic campus and extended education sites. Increased commitment to diversity, quality in undergraduate education, research, and economic development occurred over his 12-year tenure. Part of Coor’s legacy to the university was a successful fundraising campaign: through private donations, more than $500 million was invested in areas that would significantly impact the future of ASU. Among the campaign’s achievements were the naming and endowing of Barrett, The Honors College, and the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts; the creation of many new endowed faculty positions; and hundreds of new scholarships and fellowships.

In 2002, Michael M. Crow became the university’s 16th president. At his inauguration, he outlined his vision for transforming Arizona State University into a “New American University”—one that would be open and inclusive, and set a goal for the university to meet Association of American Universities (US) criteria and to become a member. Crow initiated the idea of transforming Arizona State University into “One university in many places”—a single institution comprising several campuses, sharing students, faculty, staff and accreditation. Subsequent reorganizations combined academic departments, consolidated colleges and schools, and reduced staff and administration as the university expanded its West and Polytechnic campuses. Arizona State University’s Downtown Phoenix campus was also expanded, with several colleges and schools relocating there. The university established learning centers throughout the state, including the Arizona State University Colleges at Lake Havasu City and programs in Thatcher, Yuma, and Tucson. Students at these centers can choose from several Arizona State University degree and certificate programs.

During Crow’s tenure, and aided by hundreds of millions of dollars in donations, Arizona State University began a years-long research facility capital building effort that led to the establishment of the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University, the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, and several large interdisciplinary research buildings. Along with the research facilities, the university faculty was expanded, including the addition of five Nobel Laureates. Since 2002, the university’s research expenditures have tripled and more than 1.5 million square feet of space has been added to the university’s research facilities.

The economic downturn that began in 2008 took a particularly hard toll on Arizona, resulting in large cuts to Arizona State University’s budget. In response to these cuts, Arizona State University capped enrollment, closed some four dozen academic programs, combined academic departments, consolidated colleges and schools, and reduced university faculty, staff and administrators; however, with an economic recovery underway in 2011, the university continued its campaign to expand the West and Polytechnic Campuses, and establish a low-cost, teaching-focused extension campus in Lake Havasu City.

As of 2011, an article in Slate reported that, “the bottom line looks good,” noting that:

“Since Crow’s arrival, Arizona State University’s research funding has almost tripled to nearly $350 million. Degree production has increased by 45 percent. And thanks to an ambitious aid program, enrollment of students from Arizona families below poverty is up 647 percent.”

In 2015, the Thunderbird School of Global Management became the fifth Arizona State University campus, as the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. Partnerships for education and research with Mayo Clinic established collaborative degree programs in health care and law, and shared administrator positions, laboratories and classes at the Mayo Clinic Arizona campus.

The Beus Center for Law and Society, the new home of Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, opened in fall 2016 on the Downtown Phoenix campus, relocating faculty and students from the Tempe campus to the state capital.