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Exobiology in France

Frances Westall
Frances Westall
Director of the GDR Exobiologie, CNRS
Frances Westall, Director of the GDR Exobiologie
Director of Research, CNRS-Orléans

Activities in the domain of Exobiology (as the French equivalent of Astrobiology) have been going on in France since the 1980s, firstly supported by the French Space Agency (CNES: Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales) and leading to the establishment of a pluridisciplinary thematic group in 1994. The support of the CNES enabled this group to fund between 15 to 20 research proposals a year.

One national colloquium held in 1997 in Roscoff was underpinned by the CNES and one of the departments of the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), INSU - Institut National des Sciences de l’Univers. About 80 scientists from different disciplines attended these meetings, and they defined the general directions of research and priorities at a national level. On the basis of these endeavours, in 1999 the French exobiologists received a formal statute from the national research body, the CNRS, in the form of the creation of a “Groupement de Recherche – Exobiologie” (Exobiology Research Group). Since this time, the GDR-Exobio, as it is colloquially known, has been extremely active in serving as a collective body that stimulates cooperation and collaboration between people in widely disparate fields, and in attracting new people from widely different backgrounds to the field.

Researchers participating in the steering committee of the GDR-Exobiology, or in the various meeting supported by the GDR-Exobiology, as well as those benefiting from the GDR-Exobiology funding programme, come from many different branches of the CNRS including the Departments of Chemistry, Life Sciences, Mathématiques, Physiques, Planets and the Universe, and Environment and Durable Development.

The main aims of the GDR-Exobiologie are threefold. First, to reinforce collaborations between groups that are developing their lines of research within the framework of exobiology. Second, to stimulate new collaborations between existing but widely disparate groups. The third is to reinforce a pole of excellence in this domain on a national level that is both competitive and widely recognised on an international level.

In order to attain its objectives, the GDR launches an Announcement of Opportunity that covers the entire domain of Exobiology and is open to the whole French community. Initially, there were four major themes dealing with the ingredients of primitive life in their geological, planetary and interstellar context; the chemistry of the origins of life to the emergence of life, including the structure and functions of biological molecules; terrestrial life as a reference, including fossils, biomarkers and extreme environments; and habitats and signatures of extraterrestrial life. After discussions during a colloquium on the perspectives of Exobiology, held in May 2006 in Orléans, these themes were regrouped into two main categories: the origin of life, including the geological and environmental context of the early Earth, prebiotic chemistry, the ingredients of life, early life, and the limits of life; and extraterrestrial life, including habitability in the Solar System, biosignatures, and exoplanets.

The French community of exobiologists is extremely active on a national level with annual support for a number of thematic workshops (e.g. the Fermi paradox, biosignatures, teaching) and an extremely well-attended bi-annual Exobiology School (organised by M. Gargaud of the Observatoire de Bordeaux).

The vitality of the subject and the interest of the researchers in very different disciplines are the outward signs of the importance of the Exobiological community in France. As a result of its coordinating activities, the GDR-Exobiologie contributed to channelling the activities of the French scientists around certain mainstream topics. As a result of the support of the GDR-Exobiologie and its activities, French scientists working in the domain of Exobiology are internationally recognised.

Finally, the GDR-Exobiologie fully participates in astrobiological activities within Europe and on a global scale. While individual French scientists collaborate with other astrobiologists around the world, the GDR is a founding member of EANA, the European Astrobiology Network Association (which now has 17 member countries), is an associate member of the National Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and a founding member of the Federation of Astrobiology Organisations (FAO).