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  1. NAI Director Chats Podcast: Dr. Penny Boston and Dr. Jim Green


    The NASA Astrobiology Institute presents a new podcast! Dr. Jim Green, Director of the NASA Planetary Sciences Division sits down with Dr. Penny Boston, Director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, to discuss astrobiology within the planetary sciences at NASA.

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    Related Story:
    NAI Director’s Seminar Series: A Talk with Jim Green

    Source: [NASA Astrobiology Institute SoundCloud]

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  1. Astrobiology Australasia


    Martin Van Kranendonk, Director of the Australian Center for Astrobiology, doing field work in the Pilbara. Source: Eben Rose (via Astrobiology at NASA) Image credit: None
    Martin Van Kranendonk, Director of the Australian Center for Astrobiology, doing field work in the Pilbara. Source: Eben Rose (via Astrobiology at NASA)

    Australia and New Zealand are hot spots for astrobiology, with ongoing research into the origin of life and upcoming events this summer.

    The Astrobiology Australasia Meeting 2018 (AAM 2018), organized by the New Zealand Astrobiology Network (NZAN) and the Australian Centre for Astrobiology (ACA), will be held June 25-26, 2018 in Rotorua, New Zealand, with abstracts due April 30. More information on the meeting is available at http://astrobiology.nz/aam2018.

    As a part of AAM2018, the ACA is gearing up for another Astrobiology Grand Tour. The July 2-11, 2018 trip guides participants through key sites in Western Australia, providing a unique opportunity to swim among stromatolites in Shark Bay, camp in Karijini National Park, examine ancient fossilized evidence of life in Pilbara Craton, and more.

    More details on the ACA and the research happening in Australia are highlighted at the Astrobiology at NASA website.

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  1. A Virus-Bacteria Coevolutionary 'Arms Race' Solves the Diversity Paradox


    Nigel Goldenfeld (left) and Chi Xue (right) have developed a model that reveals an 'arms race' between bacteria and viruses that may help to solve the diversity paradox. Source: UIUC Image credit: None
    Nigel Goldenfeld (left) and Chi Xue (right) have developed a model that reveals an 'arms race' between bacteria and viruses that may help to solve the diversity paradox. Source: UIUC

    A remarkable biodiversity exists on Earth. When many species are competing for the same finite resource, a theory called competitive exclusion suggests one species will outperform the others and drive them to extinction, limiting biodiversity. But this isn’t what we observe in nature – a phenomenon known as the diversity paradox.

    Chi Xue, graduate student in physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (UIUC), and Nigel Goldenfeld, Swanlund professor in physics at UIUC and PI of the NASA Astrobiology Institute based at UIUC, have developed a stochastic model that accounts for multiple factors observed in ecosystems, including competition among species and simultaneous predation on the competing species. Their results reveal a coevolutionary microbial ‘arms race’ that may yield a possible solution to the diversity paradox.

    The paper, “Coevolution Maintains Diversity in the Stochastic ‘Kill the Winner’ Model” is published in Physics Review Letters.

    A press release is available through the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

    Source: [Physics Review Letters (via UIUC)]

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  1. NAI Director's Seminar Series: A Talk with Jim Green


    Image credit: None

    On January 16, 2018, Dr. Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, joined the NASA Astrobiology Institute to present the latest happenings in NASA Planetary Science, providing an overview of upcoming missions and activities related to astrobiology.

    A recording of the seminar is available to watch.

    Source: [NAI Seminars and Workshops]

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  1. Viruses at Large in the Universe


    Composite image sources: Creative Commons, NASA. Image credit: None
    Composite image sources: Creative Commons, NASA.

    In a recent paper published in Astrobiology, Kenneth Stedman, professor of biology at Portland State University and Chair of the Astrobiology Virus Focus Group supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and his colleagues point to the significance of viruses in the evolution of life on Earth, making a case for studying viruses in space and the role viruses might play as biomarkers in the search for life beyond our planet.

    “Astrovirology: Viruses at Large in the Universe” provides a comprehensive review of virology and the state of astrovirology, and aims to inspire stronger integration of virus research in the future of astrobiology.

    A press release is available through Portland State University.

    Source: [Astrobiology (via PSU)]

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  1. Life on Earth Arose Early and Diversified Rapidly


    SIMS analysis of <i>Primaevifilum amoenum</i>, an Apex chert microfossil found in Western Australia, is interpreted to be a methane-consuming γ-Proteobacterium. Source: J.W. Schopf, UCLA. Image credit: None
    SIMS analysis of Primaevifilum amoenum, an Apex chert microfossil found in Western Australia, is interpreted to be a methane-consuming γ-Proteobacterium. Source: J.W. Schopf, UCLA.

    J. William Schopf, professor of paleobiology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), with scientists at UCLA and the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) team at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teamed up with John Valley, professor of geoscience at UW-Madison and member of NAI’s UW-Madison team, to analyze eleven species of microscopic fossils first discovered in Western Australia in 1993. Their analysis revealed a diversity of microbes that place the possible emergence of life on Earth at around 4 billion years ago—earlier than previously assumed.

    The study, “SIMS analyses of the oldest known assemblage of microfossils document their taxon-correlated carbon isotope compositions” is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Source: [PNAS (via UCLA and UW-Madison)]

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  1. Upcoming Astrobiology Funding Opportunities


    Image credit: None

    The deadlines for these funding opportunities for travel, research, and collaboration in astrobiology are approaching!

    Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon) 2018 – February 5, 2018
    The Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology – February 15, 2018
    NASA Astrobiology Postdoctoral Program Fellowship – March 1, 2018
    NASA Astrobiology Early Career Collaboration Award – April 1, 2018
    NASA Astrobiology Faculty Diversity Program (formerly the MIRS Program) – April 15, 2018

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  1. 6th ELSI International Symposium Live Webcast


    The 6th ELSI International Symposium: Building Bridges from Earth to Life: From Chemical Mechanism to Ancient Biology at the Tokyo Institute of Technology takes place January 9th-11th, 9AM-5PM (Japan Standard Time). Image credit: None
    The 6th ELSI International Symposium: Building Bridges from Earth to Life: From Chemical Mechanism to Ancient Biology at the Tokyo Institute of Technology takes place January 9th-11th, 9AM-5PM (Japan Standard Time).

    The 6th ELSI International Symposium, Building Bridges from Earth to Life: From Chemical Mechanism to Ancient Biology, begins January 9th at 9AM JST.

    The webcast of the event streams live at SAGANet. To participate in the conference remotely, go to http://saganet.org/page/saganlive.

    Source: [Earth-Life Science Institute and NASA Astrobiology Program]

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  1. Ancient Microbes Caused Earth's First Global Warming


    Artist's concept of an ice-covered planet in a distant solar system, resembling what early Earth may have looked like it the right mix of microbial metabolisms and volcanic processes hadn’t warmed the climate. Source: European southern observatory (EXO) via Wikimedia Commons Image credit: None
    Artist's concept of an ice-covered planet in a distant solar system, resembling what early Earth may have looked like it the right mix of microbial metabolisms and volcanic processes hadn’t warmed the climate. Source: European southern observatory (EXO) via Wikimedia Commons

    Kazumi Ozaki, a NASA Postdoctoral Program Fellow at Georgia Tech, with the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) Alternative Earths team and Chris Reinhard, a member the NASA Astrobiology Institute team at Georgia Tech, have designed an innovative model linking microbial ecosystems, volcanism, photochemistry, and atmospheric escape to enable rapid analysis of probabilities of different climate states.Their work reveals the importance of early photosynthetic life for warming Earth-like planets around dim stars.

    “We think this represents a wonderful example of what understanding the early Earth brings to the broader issue of planetary habitability and atmospheric signs of life,” says Reinhard.

    The paper, “Effects of primitive photosynthesis on Earth’s early climate system,” is published in Nature Geosciences.

    A press release is also available at New Scientist.

    Source: [Nature Geosciences (via UCR and Georgia Tech)]

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  1. Gravity Assist Podcast


    Image credit: None

    NASA proudly presents its latest podcast: Gravity Assist. Dr. Jim Green, Director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, hosts the weekly program where he chats with notable planetary scientists about our Solar System, its origin, and its evolution. The first episode debuted November 15, 2017.

    You can listen and subscribe via iTunes, SoundCloud, and RSS Feed.

    Source: [NASA]

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  1. If Past Life on Mars Existed, It Co-evolved with the Martian Environment


    Image credit: None

    In a new article published in Astrobiology, Nathalie Cabrol, Director of the Carl Sagan Center for Research at the SETI Institute and PI for the NASA Astrobiology Institute team at SETI, puts forth a proposition about possible past life on Mars. She suggests that just as environmental change and biological evolution are linked in a process known as coevolution on Earth, so too would have been the case on Mars, if indeed life existed there at one time. In addition, because of the unique environmental conditions on Mars—notably the collapse of its atmosphere—life would have evolved differently on Mars than it did on Earth.

    Read the story at the SETI website.

    Source: [SETI]

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  1. NASA Discovery Program Announcement of Opportunity Long-range Planning Information


    Image credit: None

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Science Mission Directorate (SMD) intends to release an Announcement of Opportunity (AO) for Discovery Program missions by February 2019. The Discovery Program conducts Principal Investigator (PI)-led space science investigations in SMD’s planetary programs under a not-to-exceed cost cap. It is anticipated that no more than three Discovery investigations will be selected for 9-month, $3M (RY) Phase A concept studies through this AO. At the conclusion of these concept studies, it is planned that at least one Discovery investigation will be selected to continue into Phase B and subsequent mission phases. Multiple missions may be selected if their total cost remains below the cost cap. There will be no Missions of Opportunity (MO) solicited as part of this AO nor through an accompanying Program Element Appendix to the SALMON-3 AO.

    Source: [NASA Science Mission Directorate]

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  1. Mongolian Microfossils Point to the Rise of Animals on Earth


    Assorted microfossils from the Ediacaran Khesen Formation, Mongolia. Each fossil is on the order of 200 microns maximum dimension. Source: Yale University Image credit: None
    Assorted microfossils from the Ediacaran Khesen Formation, Mongolia. Each fossil is on the order of 200 microns maximum dimension. Source: Yale University

    A Yale-led research team has discovered a cache of embryo-like microfossils in northern Mongolia that may shed light on questions about the long-ago shift from microbes to animals on Earth. Called the Khesen Formation, the site is one of the most significant for early Earth fossils since the discovery of the Doushantuo Formation in southern China nearly 20 years ago. The Dousantuo Formation is 600 million years old; the Khesen Formation is younger, at about 540 million years old.

    “Understanding how and when animals evolved has proved very difficult for paleontologists. The discovery of an exceptionally well-preserved fossil assemblage with animal embryo-like fossils gives us a new window onto a critical transition in life’s history,” said Yale graduate student Ross Anderson, first author of a study in the journal Geology.

    Read the full press release by Jim Shelton at YaleNews.

    Source: [Yale]

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  1. A Popular Tool to Trace Earth’s Oxygen History Can Give False Positives


    Close-up view of layered sedimentary rocks representative of those used in this study. Each layer records a snapshot of the Earth system over millions to billions of years. Credit: Georgia Tech / Yale - Reinhard / Planavsky Image credit: None
    Close-up view of layered sedimentary rocks representative of those used in this study. Each layer records a snapshot of the Earth system over millions to billions of years. Credit: Georgia Tech / Yale - Reinhard / Planavsky

    For researchers pursuing the primordial history of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, a new study might sour some “Eureka!” moments. A contemporary tool used to trace oxygen by examining ancient rock strata can produce false positives, according to the study, and the wayward results can mask as exhilarating discoveries.

    Common molecules called ligands can bias the results of a popular chemical tracer called the chromium (Cr) isotope system, which is used to test sedimentary rock layers for clues about atmospheric oxygen levels during the epoch when the rock formed. Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have demonstrated in the lab that many ligands could have created a signal very similar to that of molecular oxygen.

    “There are some geographical locations and ancient situations where measurable signals could have been generated that had nothing to do with how much oxygen was around,” said Chris Reinhard, one of the study’s lead authors. Though the new research may impact how some recent findings are assessed, that doesn’t mean the tool isn’t useful overall.

    Yuanzhi Tang and Reinhard, both assistant professors of biogeochemistry in Georgia Tech’s School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, published their team’s results in a study on November 17, 2017, in the journal Nature Communications.

    Source: [Georgia Tech]

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  1. Hydrothermal Vent Experiments Bring Enceladus to Earth


    Saturn’s moon Enceladus has an ocean beneath the ice, and at the interface between the ocean and the rocky core, hydrothermal vents could be breeding grounds for prebiotic chemistry. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Image credit: None
    Saturn’s moon Enceladus has an ocean beneath the ice, and at the interface between the ocean and the rocky core, hydrothermal vents could be breeding grounds for prebiotic chemistry. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

    Laboratory experiments on Earth can now simulate the conditions under which life might emerge on Saturn’s moon Enceladus, as well as other icy alien worlds, according to new research published in the September 2017 issue of the journal Astrobiology.

    Since there is life virtually wherever there is water on Earth, researchers looking for alien life often focus on planets in the habitable zones of stars, which are the regions around stars where it is warm enough for worlds to possess water on their surfaces. However, in the past few decades, scientists have increasingly found evidence for oceans – and, potentially, life – hidden under the icy crusts of places such as Jupiter’s moons Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, and Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan.

    Source: [Astrobio.net]

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