Much of life on Earth exists in extreme environments. These environments can be very hot or very cold, they can have very high pressure, they can be extremely acidic or alkaline, and they can contain very harsh chemicals. Cells and the large molecules (e.g. proteins, DNA, membranes) that keep cells alive are highly sensitive to environmental conditions. In the laboratory it can be shown that under extreme conditions these molecules are degraded and their biological functions are abrogated. In contrast, in their natural environments, cells manage to survive and thrive under extreme conditions. It is of interest to understand the mechanisms whereby cells and biological macromolecules adapt to tolerate extreme environments, and how changing physical and chemical environments have affected evolution during billions of years on Earth. This Research Coordination Network (RCN) will bring together scientists from very different fields to examine the limits of life on Earth. Besides fundamental understanding of the rules of life, detailed understanding of how biomolecules and cells have evolved to function in extreme environments will help in the development of novel industrial and biotechnological processes for green chemistry applications, bioremediation and bio-therapeutics. Improved understanding of life in the wide range of extreme conditions compatible with life will also inform the search for life on other planets and provide clues about the origins of life on Earth. This RCN will foster the truly novel cross-disciplinary collaborations that are needed to understand life in extreme environments. It will fund scientific meetings, workshops, and lab exchange programs to foment cross-pollination. The RCN will also contribute towards the development of training programs for undergraduate and graduate students and postdoctoral fellows at the interface between the very different disciplines required to achieve convergence in this research area.
Much of the Earth's biosphere and biomass are found under extreme conditions of temperature (T), pressure (P), pH and salt (I). It is already well understood that the physical (e.g. structure, stability, interactions, solubility) and functional properties of all biological molecules (e.g. proteins, DNA, membranes) are highly sensitive to conditions of T, P, pH and I. The molecular and cellular mechanisms used for adaptation for life under extreme conditions are poorly understood. This Research Coordination Network on Extreme Biophysics will stimulate the convergence of disciplines (e.g. geochemistry, oceanography, astrophysics, computation, biochemistry, microbiology and geomicrobiology, analytical chemistry, genomics, molecular and cellular biophysics) needed to understand how life evolved for 4 billion years in response to changing conditions on Earth. Genomes from a large number of extremophilic organisms are now available, providing a useful starting point for a systematic study of molecular evolution of organisms in different environments. The moment is ripe for the development of the field of extreme biophysics. The central goal of this RCN is to regularly gather scientists with vastly different backgrounds to examine systematically the biophysical and biochemical basis for life under extreme conditions. Meetings, workshops and lab visits will be the vehicle for exchange and collaboration. The outcomes of the RCN include (1) identification of critical questions in extreme molecular and cellular biophysics, (2) identification of the promising research areas and systems useful for study, (3) progress with technological and conceptual road-blocks, (4) cross-disciplinary collaborative efforts to attract funding for research in this area, (5) pathways for training of young scientists to prepare them for a truly this multidisciplinary approach to study life on Earth and beyond. This RCN is jointly funded by the Molecular Biophysics Cluster in the Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences and the Physics of Living Systems Program in the Division of Physics.
This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.