NASA Institute Welcomes New Director

Categories: Missions

NASA has announced that it has selected Dr. Bruce Runnegar of the University of California, Los Angeles, as the next director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute (NAI). He succeeds Nobel Laureate Dr. Baruch S. Blumberg, who last year declared his intention to step down from the position.

Runnegar currently is a professor in UCLA’s Department of Earth and Space Sciences and the Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics (IGPP). For the past four years, he also has served as the Director of the IGPP’s Center for Astrobiology, one of the 11 original lead teams of the Astrobiology Institute. Educated in Australia at the University of Queensland, Runnegar became a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1987.

"Dr. Runnegar is an internationally recognized paleontologist and astrobiologist whose breadth of knowledge and excellence in research and teaching are respected throughout the scientific and academic communities," said Dr. Henry McDonald, Director of NASA Ames Research Center, in California’s Silicon Valley. "We enthusiastically welcome him."

Bruce Runnegar
Dr. Bruce Runnegar, UCLA Department of Earth and Space Sciences, Los Angeles
Credit: UCLA

"I am impressed as much with Dr. Runnegar’s credentials and experience, as with his vision for the role the NASA Astrobiology Institute could play in meshing leading-edge research directions with NASA’s unique exploration opportunities," said NASA Senior Scientist for Astrobiology, Dr. Michael Meyer.

As director of the Institute, Runnegar will lead the consortium in its efforts to answer the three big questions central to astrobiology: How does life begin and evolve? Does life exist elsewhere? What is life’s future on Earth and beyond? "The answers to these questions will not come quickly," said Runnegar. That’s why NASA needs to attract bright young people to the field of astrobiology." Part of his role, Runnegar said, will be to develop educational opportunities in parallel with new astrobiology science objectives.

"Dr. Runnegar’s appointment represents another major step in the evolution of the Astrobiology Institute and the work that it sponsors," said G. Scott Hubbard, NASA Ames Deputy Director for Research. "Runnegar’s long-established leadership in the field will provide the NAI with continuing momentum and research growth."

Established in July 1998, the NAI is a virtual organization composed of NASA field centers, universities and research organizations that collaborate to study the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe. The Institute brings together astronomers, biologists, chemists, geologists, paleontologists, physicists and planetary scientists. It comprises 15 lead teams selected from competitive, peer-reviewed proposals submitted in response to NASA Cooperative Agreement Notices or CANs. Leadership of the Institute, the Director’s office and associated staff are located at NASA Ames. NAI’s first director was G. Scott Hubbard, followed by Blumberg in 1999.

"Good things come in threes," said NAI Deputy Director Dr. Rosalind Grymes. "In the next several months, the NAI will release its third call for collaborative research grants, hold its third general members’ meeting and welcome its third director."

Runnegar and his wife, Maria, a biochemist at the University of Southern California, have one daughter, who is a lawyer in Brisbane, Australia. He enjoys geological fieldwork, old furniture and botanical gardens.

The NAI currently has 15 member institutions: Arizona State University, Tempe; University of Colorado, Boulder; University of Washington, Seattle; NASA Ames Research Center; Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla, Calif.; University of Rhode Island; Pennsylvania State University; Harvard University; University of California, Los Angeles; Michigan State University; Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Mass.; Carnegie Institution of Washington; NASA Johnson Space Center, Houston; and two research teams located at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Current Research Interest


  • Biotic and environmental events that accompanied the Cambrian explosion of multicellular life. Working with the oldest complex fossils (Ediacara Fauna), in Namibia, Nevada, Newfoundland and South Australia; with core members of the metazoan radiation (molluscs and related animals) from Cambrian strata; with the carbonate biominerals that built mineral skeletons; and with molecular data (18S rRNA gene sequences) from modern organisms that contribute to an understanding of relationships among the animal phyla.

    Selected Publications

  • Bengtson, S., Conway Morris, S., Cooper, B.J., Jell, P.A. and Runnegar, B. 1990. Early Cambrian skeletal fossils from South Australia. Memoirs of the Association of Australasian Palaeontologists 9, 1-364.
  • Runnegar, B. 1991. Precambrian oxygen levels estimated from the biochemistry and physiology of early eukaryotes. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology 71, 97-111.
  • Han, T.M. and Runnegar, B. 1992. Megascopic eukaryotic algae from the 2.1 billion-year-old Negaunee Iron-Formation, Michigan. Science 257, 232-235.
  • Belasky, P. and Runnegar, B. 1993. Biogeographic constraints for tectonic reconstructions of the Pacific region. Geology 21, 979-982.
  • Belasky, P. and Runnegar, B. 1994, Permian longitudes of Wrangellia, Stikinia, and Eastern Klamath terranes based on coral biogeography. Geology 22, 1095-1098.
  • Runnegar, B., 1995, Vendobionta or Metazoa? Developments in understanding the Ediacara fauna." Neues Jahrbuch für Mineralogie, Geologie und Palaeontologie. Abhandlundgen 195, 303-318.
  • Saltzman, M.R., Davidson, J.P., Holden, P., Runnegar, B. and Lohmann, K.C. 1995. Sea-level-driven changes in ocean chemistry at an Upper Cambrian extinction horizon. Geology 23, 893-896.
  • Runnegar, B. 1995. Early evolution of the Mollusca: the fossil record. In: J. Taylor (ed.), Origin and evolutionary radiation of the Mollusca, Oxford Univsity Press, Oxford, pp. 77-88.