NAI’s New Teams: A Preview of the Research

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NASA has awarded five-year grants totaling almost $50 million to the seven research teams to study the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.

Please join us in welcoming the new members of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), winners of the CAN7 competition: the SETI Institute in Mountain View, CA; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA; the University of California, Riverside; NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD; the University of Montana, Missoula; and the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Each interdisciplinary team will bring unique capabilities and expertise to NASA’s Astrobiology Program, and the collaborative structure of the NAI will provide for productive interactions not only across these teams, but also with the current teams of the NAI: the University of Washington, Seattle; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.

Nathalie Cabrol will lead the NAI team at the SETI Institute. The team will conduct an integrated set of investigations to support future Mars exploration, particularly NASA’s Mars 2020 mission to cache samples for later return to Earth. Her team will lay the groundwork to ensure the most valuable samples are identified, collected, and stored, as well as influence a long-term strategy for the astrobiological exploration of Mars.

The team’s scientific focus is the preservation of biosignatures in the context of dynamic conditions on early Mars. Terrestrial analogue environments will be characterized to define their habitability potential and the potential for biosignatures and their preservation. An additional technology focus is testing instruments recommended by the Mars 2020 Science Definition Team to evaluate their individual and combined diagnostic power on key Mars analog materials.

Isik Kanik’s team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory will build on work done over the past five years as an NAI team, concentrating on the habitability of icy worlds such as Europa, Ganymede, and Enceladus. Working synergistically across theoretical, field, and laboratory research, the team will explore the transition from geochemistry to biochemistry, expanding to ask how such biochemistry ultimately produces detectable signatures on icy worlds.

Water-rock interfaces such as hydrothermal chimney systems will serve as models through which to investigate if and how geochemical phenomena such as disequilibria and gradients evolve into metabolic systems.

Timothy Lyons at the University of California, Riverside and his team will undertake a “mission to early Earth” to tackle the question of how the planet has remained persistently habitable for most of its ~4.5 billion year history. They will characterize “Alternative Earths”—snapshots of prior moments in Earth’s past. Three carefully selected, critical time intervals centered on a compelling question or controversy—a series of natural laboratories—have been selected for investigation.

Their strategy is based on the principle that physical, chemical, and biological processes on and within the planet are reflected in Earth’s dynamic atmosphere both in the present and throughout Earth’s history. The team will consider the atmosphere and surface of each of these Alternative Earths as an integrated product of life-sustaining biogeoplanetary processes, approaching them as remotely detectable biosignatures.

The new team at NASA’s Ames Research Center led by Scott Sandford will investigate the history of organic material in space starting from its roots in abiotic chemistry. In a Universe that has transformed from chemically barren to molecular, one that is far more chemically complex than once thought possible, the team will explore questions about how this complexity was created, and what role this organic chemical evolution plays in the origin of life.

The team’s integrated research program will lead to greater understanding of chemical processes at every stage in the evolution of organic chemical complexity, from quiescent regions of dense molecular clouds, through all stages of cloud collapse, protostellar disk and planet formation, and ultimately to the materials that rain down on planets and potentially give rise to life.

Michael Mumma from NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center has been leading an NAI team there since 2003. The new team’s work is focused on the question “did delivery of organic compounds and water to the early Earth by comets and asteroids enable the emergence and evolution of life?” The team will study the influence of such phenomena as astrophysical x-rays and snow lines (distances from a protostar beyond which various volatiles condense as ices) on the space environments in which comets and asteroids form, thus affecting their inventories of organic materials. Comets and meteorites will be studied telescopically and in the laboratory, respectively, to elucidate their role in delivering prebiotic materials to early Earth and other planets.

The team will also use its expertise in highly sensitive spectral sensing to search for biosignatures and evaluate habitability on bodies in this solar system such as Mars, Europa, and Enceladus as well as on planets orbiting other stars.

The team at the University of Montana, Missoula will be led by Frank Rosenzweig. Propelled by Darwin’s compelling description of life on Earth as a “tangled bank” of plants, birds, and insects of many differing yet dependent forms, all produced by laws such as growth, inheritance, and variability, the team aims to illuminate and interpret these laws via laboratory-based evolution experiments with microbial populations.

150 years after Darwin, the importance of other factors is now recognized, in particular chance, whether in the form of genetic drift or historical contingency. New understandings of the gene, how genes interact, and how mutation rate itself is subject to natural selection are also playing a role, as is insight into cooperative (vs. competitive) interactions as fundamental features of biological systems. The team will bring all of this to bear on the question, “what forces bring about major transitions in the evolution of biocomplexity?”

Alexis Templeton’s team at the University of Colorado, Boulder will focus on the chemical energy that becomes available to living systems through the interaction of rocks and water. Astrobiological investigations commonly use such a thermodynamic framework to predict the habitability of planetary environments, yet this versatile framework does not allow the prediction of which habitable niches are effectively occupied and transformed by life. The team will address the need to define how, when, and where geological systems power biological processes, particularly within the vast but underdefined realms where rocks and water react at low temperatures.

The Rock-Powered Life team will develop a quantitative, process-oriented approach to understanding
how water/rock interactions shape the habitability of landscapes and dictate when portions of these landscapes are inhabited. They will define pathways facilitating energy transfer between rock and life, the biochemical adaptions required to harness this energy, and the potential for the resulting chemical, mineralogical, and biological products to be recognizable as biosignatures.

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