NASA and JCVI host symposium on the evolution of Earth and Life

On May 12th and 13th, the J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego will be hosting a NASA Astrobiology Institute-funded symposium titled “Paleobiology in the genomics era.” Paleobiology is the study of the origins and evolution of life and, by nature, is interdisciplinary. The goal is to bring together scientists united by this common interest but differentiated by expertise. A major intellectual challenge to paleobiology is the close interaction between environment and life. As life evolved, it changed the environment and suffered the consequences. One of the most extreme examples is the invention of oxygenic photosynthesis by blue-green algae cyanobacteria; the sunlight-fueled production of dramatically changed the availability of crucial elements of life, like nitrogen, sulfur, iron, zinc, copper, and other trace metals. Genome-based analyses showed that these environmental changes modulated the emergence of metal-requiring proteins. For example, proteins that bind Fe evolved when the earth was Fe rich. Essentially, one biological event changed the environment, which in turn induced a subsequent biological change; a feedback cycle between biota and planet.

In order to study these interactions in a robust fashion, numerous lines of evidence must be integrated, despite originating from disparate fields like organic and inorganic geochemistry (oils and metals in rocks), micropaleontology (tiny fossils), and evolutionary biology. Recent years have observed the emergence and maturation of synthetic biology and computational biology, two fields with tremendous potential for the formulation and testing of hypotheses about the evolution of life. To facilitate a dialog between these fields, myself, along with Ariel Anbar from Arizona State University, and John Peters and Eric Boyd from Montana State University, have invited experts to present their work as it pertains to paleobiology. The topic list almost appears schizophrenic, with numerous hard-core geochemical talks being followed presentations on molecular genetics, synthetic biology, metagenomics, and comparative genomics. This was intentional. I hope to feel intellectually challenged in the fashion of a 1st year graduate student and further hope that I’m not the only one. A major wild card at the moment is the identity of over 2/3rd of the attendees. With travel grants available for graduate students, post-doctoral researchers, and faculty, we hope to incorporate novel perspectives not covered by the confirmed speakers.

While the content of the meeting is exciting, the format is pretty sweet too. As part of NASA’s Workshop Without Walls series, the meeting will be webcast live with an accompanying live stream chat. Thus, people will be able to see the presentations and pose questions and comments during the attendant discussions. Previous workshops have often had hundreds of live viewers throughout the meeting, despite only dozens of in situ attendees. The actual energy savings for a single meeting are modest in isolation; imagine 250 people not flying 500 miles and you basically have a single 737 flight that remains grounded. However, the future of environmentally-friendly science requires important preliminary steps to change dominant trends. Similarly, the talks will be streamed live without charge and deposited in the open access scientific podcast site, Scivee.tv; economic barriers to information exchange are removed.

Needless to say, I’m looking forward to this meeting. Organizing something like this is an absolute undertaking. The number of details that need attention is astounding. And if you think I actually could do that, you don’t know me. Numerous people at JCVI have provided invaluable assistance, including Matt LaPointe and Jasmine Pollard, Robert Friedman, Dave Negrotto, and Jody Wilson. It would also have no chance of happening if it not for Pat Goley, who has handed the numerous (re: uncountable) details I’ve lapsed on.

Check out the NASA page for the meeting and webcast registration.