Astrobiology (general)

Astrobiologist Wins Darwin-Wallace Medal

By Keith Cowing
September 4, 2011

This year’s recipient of the prestigious Darwin-Wallace Medal is James A. Lake, professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and a researcher with NASA’s Astrobiology Program. The Linnean Society of London awards this medal for major advances in evolutionary biology. Lake received the medal in London on May 25, 2011.

Lake is a collaborator with the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s (NAI) NASA Ames Research Center team, which is studying early habitable environments and the evolution of complexity in planetary environments and life. Lake’s NAI research focuses on the origins of functional proteins and the early evolution of metabolism.

A member of UCLA’s Molecular Biology Institute, Lake is known for his expertise in genomics and bioinformatics, including the origin and evolution of genomes. Among his more recent accomplishments is his discovery of the first exclusively prokaryotic endosymbiosis–the merger of two prokaryotes to form a new, eukaryotic life form. Prokaryotes are single-celled life forms without membrane-bound nuclei, whereas eukaryotic cells contain membrane-bound nuclei.

“Dr. Lake’s contributions to astrobiology are critical,” said Mary A. Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology at NASA Headquarters. “He and his collaborators are helping us to accomplish key goals in our Astrobiology Roadmap: understanding the general physical and chemical principles underlying the origins of life, how life and the environment on Earth have co-evolved through geological time, and the evolutionary mechanisms and environmental limits of life.”

Lake Co-chairs the NAI’s Focus Group on evogenomics. He previously served on two NAI teams, headed by UCLA and the Marine Biological Laboratory.

“Dr. Lake has contributed to astrobiology not only through his research, but by helping bring together the astrobiology community,” said Carl Pilcher, Director of the NAI. Through workshops and meetings, he catalyzed work by geologists and biologists to advance our understanding of how Earth and life have evolved together.”

Lake’s UCLA lab conducts research in genomics, bioinformatics, and molecular evolution, including the origin of eukaryotes and the origin of life. Specific interests of Lake’s lab include the origin of multicellular animals, the prokaryotic ancestors of eukaryotes, genomic analyses, computational genomics, and molecular sequence analysis.

Founded in 1788, the Linnean Society of London is named for Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778). The society has maintained Linnaeus’ collections since 1829. It is the world’s oldest active organization devoted exclusively to natural history. The Society first awarded the Darwin-Wallace Medal in 1908, then again in 1958 and in 2008, to commemorate the 50th, 100th and 150th anniversaries of the reading of a joint paper by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, “On the Tendency of Species to form Varieties; and the Perpetuation of Varieties and Species by Natural Means of Selection,” which was published by the Linnean Society. Recognizing the continuing importance of evolutionary biology research, in 2010 the Society began awarding the Darwin-Wallace Medal annually.

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