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Modeling the Evolutionary Emergence of Diverse Microbial Metabolisms

Michigan State University Foundation Professors Elena Litchman and Christopher Klausmeier are the recipients of a two year, $360,000 NASA Astrobiology/Exobiology grant to fund research on modeling the evolutionary origin of diverse microbial metabolisms.

The evolutionary emergence of diverse metabolisms depends not only on environmental conditions but also on microbial interactions – that is, how microorganisms interact with one another, either by competing for energy or by using energy symbiotically. The role of changing microbial interactions in the origin of metabolic pathways under dynamic conditions has not, however, been investigated in detail.

“What is exciting about this project is that it merges the modeling frameworks from two disparate disciplines, systems biology and evolutionary ecology,” said Christopher, who is a professor in the Department of Plant Biology in the MSU College of Natural Science and a faculty member at MSU’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station. “The synergy between the two fields can lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of how ecology shapes microbial diversification. The results will help us understand the evolution of life’s diversity on Earth and beyond.”

Elena and Christopher plan to combine two novel scientific models from two different disciplines to explore how microbial metabolic networks develop and evolve in competitive environments.

“We’ll be using mathematical models to explore the evolution of microbes, which is a powerful approach that will help us investigate many different scenarios to come up with novel answers and insights,” said Elena. who is a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology and a KBS faculty member. “We cannot travel back in time or to other planets – yet – to witness the early origins of microbial life’s diversity, but we can do so through models.”

Their project has two major objectives: to develop the analytical framework to study metabolic mutations and then apply it to several simple metabolic networks, with several resources and temporally fluctuating conditions to see how these varying conditions affect the metabolic network evolution.

“It is exciting to see how applying fundamental ideas from ecology and evolutionary biology can be useful for astrobiology and space science, said Kay Gross, KBS director. “Litchman’s and Klausmeier’s work should open new horizons in our exploration of the evolution of life.”