Biomolecular Substrates for Extraterrestrial Life: Revealing Secrets of Extremophiles

PI: Michael Ceballos, University of Montana
Awarded for 2007-2011

The four specific aims of this project include:

  1. Identification and isolation of Sulfolobus and Fuselloviridae from presently understudied geothermal regions in order to complement previous work performed in Japan, Italy, Iceland, and the United States using techniques in metagenomics, genetics, microbiology, and electron microscopy;
  2. Archaeal growth, cross-infection, and virus production studies in previously identified and novel Sulfolobus host-virus systems with a secondary focus on the molecular substrates of viral genome integration using techniques in microbiology and biochemistry;
  3. Characterization of heat-shock protein complex formation, stability, and cellular localization in various Sulfolobus host-virus systems under different environmental conditions using techniques in biophysics and fluorescence microscopy; and,
  4. Structure-Function studies of biomolecular complexes in Sulfolobus using techniques in biochemistry, biophysics, and X-ray crystallography. This work falls under the Science Mission Directorate of NASA and is in-line with the Goal 5, Objective 5.3 of the NASA Astrobiology roadmap.

Our overall goal is to elucidate the molecular adaptations that allow extremophiles to survive in their harsh habitats and to determine if these adaptations will allow them to survive space travel and the presumed conditions on other planetary bodies within our solar system. The overall general NASA-related question is: “What physiological and molecular adaptations would allow extremophilic microorganisms to survive space-travel and evolve in the harsh environments of other planets (or moons) within our solar system?” From this question, we have developed the following general research hypothesis: A special class of highly conserved proteins known as Heat Shock Proteins (HSPs) and genetic contributions from virus activity are linked to the adaptation and survival of extremophiles in harsh environments; these HSPs and viral mechanisms will be critical for the survival of extremophiles during space-travel and in environments found on other planets (or moons). To investigate this hypothesis we have assembled a complementary group of investigators ranging from junior faculty to senior-level scientists from tribal colleges to larger mainstream universities, government labs, and industry. Each investigator brings to this project a unique set of expertise and capabilities that complement those of the other research group members. This project is organized as a collaboration between investigators at Montana State University (Bozeman, MT), The University of Montana (Missoula, MT), Portland State University (Portland, OR).. A strong emphasis in training students from underrepresented groups and mentoring junior-level faculty has been developed as an integral part of this project with the goal of increasing the number of Native Americans and other underrepresented groups pursuing careers in space sciences. It is anticipated that data resulting from this work will offer new insights into the basis of microbial evolution, advance our understanding of modern biotechnological applications of ancient biomolecular systems, and significantly forward scientific understanding of the extents at which life may exist.


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