Blast from the past: resurrecting ancient life (with confidence)

If we were able to resurrect a dinosaur in the laboratory today how could we be certain that the particular dinosaur actually existed in the distant past and does not simply represent some mutant frankensaurus?

Ongoing research at Georgia Tech aims to answer this question in an experimental approach by adding rigor to the methods and protocols used to resurrect components of ancient life.

Dr. Eric Gaucher, Associate Professor in the School of Biology, was recently awarded $700K from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to, for the first time, benchmark ancestral sequence reconstruction methods. Prof. Gaucher’s approach involves generating a known experimental phylogeny in the lab using fluorescent proteins cloned into bacteria. Generating such a “known” phylogeny with evolved sequences will, in turn, allow the group to test resurrection predictions since the true ancestral proteins are generated in the laboratory and are thus known.

An important component of the funding involves integrating evolutionary and molecular biology research into the greater Atlanta community. In collaboration with Dunwoody High school, Dr. Gaucher and Ryan Randall have developed a new Biotechnology curriculum whereby students are introduced to the connections between genotype and phenotype by evolving fluorescent proteins at the high school. In addition, The Gaucher Group annually hosts a team of Dekalb county high school students competing in the National Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, that involves bioengineering of fluorescent proteins.

For his efforts, Prof. Gaucher is also a recent recipient of Georgia Tech’s Class of 1934 Teaching Award. This award is based on student evaluations and presented to faculty with the highest ratings in overall effectiveness in teaching.

Troy Hilley