U of I's Coursera offering brings Carl Woese's pioneering work in genomics to the public

Siv Schwink
6/27/2014

The revolutionary work of the late University of Illinois microbiologist and biological physicist Carl Woese (July 15, 1928—December 30, 2012) shifted the foundations of genomic biology. His theory developed in the 1970s on the communal evolution of the genetic code forever changed our understanding of the earliest structure of life on Earth. And in 1977, Woese defined an entirely new kingdom of life, Archaea, through phylogenetic taxonomy of 16S ribosomal RNA, a technique he invented.

Woese’s work, despite being central to cutting-edge genome-enabled research across many fields, is not generally taught in classrooms or lecture halls. Now the NASA Astrobiology Institute for Universal Biology at the Institute for Genomic Biology on the University of Illinois campus, in partnership with Coursera, is offering a rare opportunity for anyone to explore and evaluate the entire history of life on Earth, based on Woese’s seminal research.

A massive open online course (MOOC) entitled Emergence of Life will run July 14 through September 7, 2014, and will be taught by Bruce Fouke, Illinois professor of biology, director of the Carver Biotech Center, and member of the Institute for Genomic Biology. It will feature previously unreleased interviews with Woese, as well as interviews with some of the most important figures in evolutionary biology today—Bruce Fouke, Swanlund Professor of Physics at Illinois Nigel Goldenfeld, University of Regensburg microbiologist and astrobiologist Karl Stetter, University of Colorado biochemist Norman Pace, and York University historian of biology Jan Sapp. It will also feature beautiful animated visualizations by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications’s eDream team.

To view the course trailer and to register for the course, please visit this link: http://go.illinois.edu/emergenceoflife.

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The most intriguing and relevant science happens at the highest levels of scientific pursuit-at major research universities and laboratories, far above and beyond typical high-school science curriculum. But this summer, 12 rising high school sophomores, juniors, and seniors-eight from Centennial and four from Central High Schools, both in Champaign-had the rare opportunity to partake in cutting-edge scientific research at a leading research institution.

The six-week summer-research Young Scholars Program (YSP) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was initiated by members of the Nuclear Physics Laboratory (NPL) group, who soon joined forces with other faculty members in the Department of Physics and with faculty members of the POETS Engineering Research Center.

Imagine planting a single seed and, with great precision, being able to predict the exact height of the tree that grows from it. Now imagine traveling to the future and snapping photographic proof that you were right.

If you think of the seed as the early universe, and the tree as the universe the way it looks now, you have an idea of what the Dark Energy Survey (DES) collaboration has just done. In a presentation today at the American Physical Society Division of Particles and Fields meeting at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, DES scientists will unveil the most accurate measurement ever made of the present large-scale structure of the universe.

These measurements of the amount and “clumpiness” (or distribution) of dark matter in the present-day cosmos were made with a precision that, for the first time, rivals that of inferences from the early universe by the European Space Agency’s orbiting Planck observatory. The new DES result (the tree, in the above metaphor) is close to “forecasts” made from the Planck measurements of the distant past (the seed), allowing scientists to understand more about the ways the universe has evolved over 14 billion years.

“This result is beyond exciting,” said Scott Dodelson of Fermilab, one of the lead scientists on this result. “For the first time, we’re able to see the current structure of the universe with the same clarity that we can see its infancy, and we can follow the threads from one to the other, confirming many predictions along the way.”

It took two years on a supercomputer to simulate 1.2 microseconds in the life of the HIV capsid, a protein cage that shuttles the HIV virus to the nucleus of a human cell. The 64-million-atom simulation offers new insights into how the virus senses its environment and completes its infective cycle.

The findings are reported in the journal Nature Communications.