2001 Annual Science Report

University of Washington Reporting  |  JUL 2000 – JUN 2001

Habitable Planets and Evolution of Bio-Complexity

Project Summary
4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

Habitable Planets and Evolution of Bio-Complexity (dm)

The University of Washington team will carry out a research program focused on planetary habitability and the evolution of biological complexity. This is integrated multidisciplinary effort with concentration on four broad problems:

1. How often do planets with truly Earth-like properties form?
2. How important is plate tectonics in the formation and maintenance of metazoan life?
3. How important are mass extinctions for the evolution and extinction of complex life: are mass extinctions fertilizer or poison (or both) in the garden of complex organisms?
4. What are the evolutionary pathways by which complex organisms originate from microbes?

A habitable planet is defined as one capable of supporting life as we know it on Earth; that is, life that requires liquid water, is carbon-based, and is capable of self-replicating and evolving. The search for extra-solar habitable planets involves a broad interdisciplinary approach that spans an understanding of how planets are formed with the conditions that allow such life to originate, sustain, and evolve. At the same time, it is becoming clear that there will be a broader spectrum of planets habitable for microbial life than for metazoan life, which apparently can exist only under a narrow subset of the range of the conditions conducive for microbial life.

The search for extra-solar habitable planets will first involve the identification of stars with chemical compositions that favor the formation of gas-giant planets. Although gas-giant planets are not habitable (although their moons may be), their presence greatly effects solar-system evolution and may be necessary for the formation of habitable planets. They also provide conditions for creating asteroids and meteor clouds that would deliver water and organic compounds to a fledgling habitable planet. However, the formation of evolving life requires more than liquid water and organic compounds. A habitable planet must make available a full range of energy sources and chemical compounds and elements that allow for oxidation and reduction reactions necessary for life, and it must have the flexibility to co-evolve with organisms to form and maintain multiple habitats. Earth provides all of the clues as to how geophysical, geochemical and astrophysical processes help create and sustain habitable planets. A differentiated planet with liquid water, active tectonism and volcanism could sustain microbial life. On earth, the accumulation of oxygen was key to the origin and evolution of metazoans. A habitable planet that could support metazoans as we know them would have to develop a carbon dioxide atmosphere that is modulated to create temperate conditions and allow the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis and the formation of an ozone layer to limit ultra violet effects on organisms. It can also be argued that periodic catastrophic events including bolide impacts are also necessary to create and maintain high variability of habitable conditions which result in increased biodiversity and biocomplexity.

Our research will draw on two major sources of evidence to study the rise of biocomplexity. The first is from the fossil record on Earth. Very little is known about the origin of metazoans other than they appear in the fossil record between 700 and 600 million years ago, in conjunction with the accumulation of relatively high concentrations of oxygen in the atmosphere. One of our hypotheses is that the earliest group of heterotrophic metazoans used anaerobic microbial communities (consortia) in their gut to decompose the complex organic compounds left behind by dead microbes. Many invertebrates and some vertebrates still employ microbes as their source of digestive enzymes. The metabolic community of microorganisms that comprised this gut flora still exists today, probably in aquatic microbial mats. Did lateral gene transfer occur between these gut microbes and metazoans, and what genes would likely be transferred?

The second major source of information will come from the study of living organims. Genomics has already proven to be extremely useful for addressing questions of early life and the evolution of eukaryotes. To date, more than 50 bacterial and archaeal genomes have been sequenced or are in progress. One of the conundrums from the genome sequences is that up to 50% of the open reading frames in genomes from microorganisms encode for unknown proteins. Moreover, some of the enzymes involved in metabolic pathways known to be present in the organism are absent in the genome suggesting that either the pathways are incomplete or that enzymes with unknown sequences or low sequence homology are involved.

    Peter Ward
    Project Investigator

    John Baross

    Donald Brownlee

    Roger Buick

    Jody Deming

    Jesse Dillon

    Ken Farley

    Guillermo Gonzalez

    Monika Kress

    David Kring

    John Leigh

    Conway Leovy

    Thomas Quinn

    Viatcheslav Solomatov

    James Staley

    Woodruff Sullivan

    Jonathan Lunine

    Mitchell Sogin

    Linda Khandro
    Unspecified Role

    David Stahl
    Unspecified Role

    Objective 1.0
    Determine whether the atmosphere of the early Earth, hydrothermal systems or exogenous matter were significant sources of organic matter.

    Objective 2.0
    Develop and test plausible pathways by which ancient counterparts of membrane systems, proteins and nucleic acids were synthesized from simpler precursors and assembled into protocells.

    Objective 4.0
    Expand and interpret the genomic database of a select group of key microorganisms in order to reveal the history and dynamics of evolution.

    Objective 5.0
    Describe the sequences of causes and effects associated with the development of Earth's early biosphere and the global environment.

    Objective 6.0
    Define how ecophysiological processes structure microbial communities, influence their adaptation and evolution, and affect their detection on other planets.

    Objective 7.0
    Identify the environmental limits for life by examining biological adaptations to extremes in environmental conditions.

    Objective 8.0
    Search for evidence of ancient climates, extinct life and potential habitats for extant life on Mars.

    Objective 11.0
    Determine (theoretically and empirically) the ultimate outcome of the planet-forming process around other stars, especially the habitable ones.

    Objective 12.0
    Define climatological and geological effects upon the limits of habitable zones around the Sun and other stars to help define the frequency of habitable planets in the universe.

    Objective 14.0
    Determine the resilience of local and global ecosystems through their response to natural and human-induced disturbances.