2009 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 3.2 Reports Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

Project Reports

  • NAI ORAU Post Doc Report: CIW-NAI
    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 7.1
  • Experimental Model System – an Ancestral Magnesium-RNA-Peptide Complex

    We will develop small model systems in which the interactions of a-rPeptides, Mg2+ ions and a-rRNA can be studied by NMR, X-ray diffraction, calorimetry, molecular dynamics simulations, and other ‘high resolution’ biophysical techniques. Within the large subunit of the extant ribosome, one can observe a tail of ribosomal protein L2 (which we call a-rPeptideL2) that interacts with ribosomal helices rRNA 65 and 66 (which are conserved in a-rRNA), which in turn combines with Mg2+ to form a Mg2+-mc. We will define the smallest a-rRNA and peptide segments (of L2) that are sufficient for assembly of this complex and will characterize the assembly by a variety of experimental and computational methods.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2
  • Task 1.1.1 Numerical Simulation of the Mixing of Organics and Ice During an Impact

    On the Titan surface, organics can mix and react with liquid water created during an impact. A model simulation of an impact on the Titan surface will be used to estimate how long liquid water might exist after an impact, which will suggest how much reaction-forming prebiotic compounds may have occurred.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Cosmic Distribution of Chemical Complexity

    This project seeks to improve our understanding of the connection between chemistry in space and the origin of life on Earth and possibly other worlds. Our approach is to trace the formation and development of chemical complexity in space, with particular emphasis on understanding the evolution from simple to complex species focusing on those that are interesting from a biogenic perspective and also understanding their possible roles in the origin of life on habitable worlds. We do this by first measuring the spectra and chemistry of materials under simulated space conditions in the laboratory. We then use these results to interpret astronomical observations made with ground-based and orbiting telescopes. We also carry out experiments on simulated extraterrestrial materials to analyze extraterrestrial samples returned by NASA missions or that fall to Earth in meteorites.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.4 4.3 7.1 7.2
  • Biomimetic Cluster Synthesis: Bridging the Structure and Reactivity of Biotic and Abiotic Iron-Sulfur Motifs

    Synthetic approaches are being utilized to bridge the gap between Fe-S minerals and highly evolved biological Fe-S metalloenzymes. These studies are focusing on organic template (protein) mediated cluster assembly (biomineralization), probing properties of synthetic clusters, both as homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysts, investigating the impact of size scale on the properties of synthetic Fe-S clusters, and computational modeling of the structure and catalytic properties of synthetic Fe-S nanoparticles in the 5-50 nm range.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 7.1 7.2
  • AbGradCon 2009

    The Astrobiology Graduate Student Conference (AbGradCon) was held on the UW campus July 17 – 20 2009. AbGradCon supports NAI’s mission to carry out, support and catalyze collaborative, interdisciplinary research, train the next generation of astrobiology researchers, provide scientific and technical leadership on astrobiology investigations for current and future space missions, and explore new approaches using modern information technology to conduct interdisciplinary and collaborative research amongst widely-distributed investigators. This was done through a diverse range of activities, ranging from formal talks and poster sessions to free time for collaboration-enabling discussions, social activities, web 2.0 conference extensions, public outreach and grant writing simulations.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Astrobiology of Icy Worlds

    Icy worlds such as Titan, Europa, Enceladus, and others may harbor the greatest volume of habitable space in the Solar System. For at least five of these worlds, considerable evidence exists to support the conclusion that oceans or seas may lie beneath the icy surfaces. The total liquid water reservoir within these worlds may be some 30 to 40 times the volume of liquid water on Earth. This vast quantity of liquid water raises two questions: Can life emerge and thrive in such cold, lightless oceans beneath many kilometers of ice? And if so, do the icy shells hold clues to life in the subsurface? We will address these questions through four major investigations namely, the habitability, survivability, and detectability of life of icy worlds coupled with “Path to Flight” Technology demonstration. We will also use a wealth of existing age-appropriate educational resources to convey concepts of astrobiology, spectroscopy, and remote sensing; develop standards-based, hands-on activities to extend the application of these resources to the search for life on icy worlds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 5.1 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Biosignatures in Ancient Rocks

    The Earth’s Archean and Proterozoic eons offer the best opportunity for investigating a microbial world, such as might be found elsewhere in the cosmos. The ancient record on Earth provides an opportunity to see what geochemical signatures are produced by microbial life and how these signatures are preserved for geological time. Researchers have recognized a variety of mineralogical and geochemical characteristics in ancient rocks (sedimentary and igneous rocks; paleosols) that may be used as indicators of: (i) specific types of organisms that lived in the oceans, lakes and on land; and (ii) their environmental conditions (e.g., climate; atmospheric and oceanic chemistry). Our project addresses the following questions: Are some or all of these characteristics true or false signatures of organisms and/or indicators of specific environmental conditions? Do a “biosignature” in a specific geologic formation represent a local or global phenomenon? How are the biosignatures on Mars and other planets expected to be similar to (or different from) those in ancient terrestrial rocks?

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.2 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • AIRFrame Technical Infrastructure and Visualization Software Evaluation

    To create visualizations of interdisciplinary relationships in the field of astrobiology, this component of the AIRFrame project involves creating a data model for source documents, a database structure, and evaluating off-the-shelf visualization software for possible application to the final project.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Amino Acid Alphabet Evolution

    All life on earth uses a standard “alphabet” of just 20 amino acids. Members of this alphabet links together into different sequences to form proteins that then interact to produce living metabolism (rather like the English of 26 letters can be linked into words that interact in sentences and paragraphs to produce meaningful writing). However, a wealth of scientific research from diverse disciplines points to the idea that many other amino acids are made by non-biological processes throughout the universe: put simply, we have no idea why life has “chosen” the members of its standard alphabet. Our project seeks to gather and organize the disparate information that describes these non-biological amino acids, to understand their properties and potential for making proteins and thus to understand better whether the biology that we know is a clever, predictable solution to making biology – or just one of countless possible solutions that may exist elsewhere.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 3.2 3.4 4.1 4.3 5.1 5.3 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Project 2: Processing of Precometary Ices in the Early Solar System

    The discovery of numerous planetary systems still in the process of formation gives us a unique opportunity to glimpse how our own solar system may have formed 5 billion years ago. We use computers to simulate events called shock waves which are common in young planetary systems. These shock waves “light up” the gas and dust in young planetary systems, making it possible to observe molecules that would not be visible otherwise. Our goal is to determine whether some of the essential building blocks of life can be detected by exploiting this effect.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 3.2
  • Computational Chemical Modeling the Link Between Structure and Reactivity of Iron-Sulfur Motifs

    Traditionally, the iron-sulfur mineral catalysis, iron-sulfur enzyme catalysis, and biomimetic thrust areas of ABRC have their own unique ways to probe the structure/function relationships at the surface defect sites, at the enzymatic active sites, or at the interface of biomacromolecular and iron-sulfur particle layers, respectively. Computation chemistry can provide a cohesive link among these thrust areas through bridging the enzymatic/mineral catalysis and molecular structure/chemical reactivity via fundamental physico-chemical properties at the molecule level.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 7.1 7.2
  • Task 1.1.2 Models of the Internal Dynamics: Formation of Liquids in the Subsurface and Relationships With Cryovolcanism

    Prebiotic compounds can be formed on the Titan surface when organics mix and react with liquid water in a cryovolcanic context, where subsurface water “erupts” onto the cold surface.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Analytical and Theoretical Studies on Origin of Earth’s Oceans and Atmosphere

    Origin of Earth’s oceans and atmosphere is an outstanding problem in Earth science. Given the importance of the oceans and atmosphere to Earth’s habitability, it is a critical question for astrobiology as well. Did these features of our planet, so critical for life, originate by regular processes that are likely to be duplicated frequently in other stellar systems, or was there a large element of chance involved? We are approaching this problem by investigating the occurrence of water in the interstellar medium, in the early solar system, and in the deep Earth, using a variety of chemical and isotopic techniques to characterize Earth’s water and to identify the processes that brought it here.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 3.2
  • Relationship Between Hydrogeology and Microbiology at Active Springs

    Springs formed by groundwater discharge may be the most likely sites for supporting life in the past or at present on Mars. We have been studying the processes that govern spatial and temporal variability of water properties at springs and the biological diversity in microbial communities supported by the springs.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2 5.3 6.1
  • Task 1.2 Interaction of Methane/ethane With Water Ice

    The degree of mixing on the Titan surface between liquid hydrocarbons and the icy water surface establishes a potential for reactions that could form prebiotic compounds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • High Level Theory – the Role of Mg2+ in Ribosome Assembly

    We have embarked on a computational evaluation of the role of Mg2+ microclusters observed to form a scaffold for the extant and ancestral peptidyl transferase center. The interaction energies of ribosomal RNA with single and multiple Mg2+ cations are computed, and deconvolved. The results will be compared to those with other metals, to determine why Mg2+ plays a special role in RNA folding.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2 5.3
  • Molecular Resurrection of the Ancestral Peptidyl Transferase Center

    We have designed, and are resurrecting, a model of the a-PTC (ancestral Peptidyl Transferase Center), which we believe to be around 4 billion years old. The proposed a-PTC contains around 600 nucleotides of ancestral ribosomal RNA (a-rRNA), three ancestral ribosomal peptides (a-rPeptides), and inorganic cations, all of which are relatively straightforward to obtain or produce. The results of our molecular resurrection will allow one to test ideas about primitive living systems, including the origin of protein.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2
  • Astrobiology Progress Report

    Scientists at the Cosmic Ice Laboratory with the Goddard Center for Astrobiology study the formation and stability of molecules under conditions found in outer space. During the past year, amino acids found in meteorites were investigated, including some acids not found in terrestrial biology. Investigations into the photostability of glycine under Martian conditions, and environments in the outer solar system, were begun. A project on ethane ice’s spectra and chemistry was initiated. All of this work is part of the Comic Ice Laboratory’s continuing contributions to understanding the chemistry of biologically-related molecules and chemical reactions in extraterrestrial environments.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 7.1
  • Molecular Beam Studies of Nitrogen Reactions on Iron-Sulfur Surfaces

    It is generally accepted that surface-mediated reactions occur on defect sites. The role of defects in the formation of ammonia is being systematically evaluated using molecular beam-surface scattering experiments in which a hydrogen atom plasma source (deuterium due to easier detection) is used to hydrogenate a pyrite surface. The hydrogenated surface is subsequently bombarded with a molecular beam of energetic nitrogen molecules and the conversion of nitrogen to products, such as ammonia is probed through mass spectrometry.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 7.1 7.2
  • Task 2.1.2 Atmospheric State and Dynamics

    An understanding of the structure of the Titan atmosphere provides the context for the formation of complex organic compounds in the atmosphere.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Bioastronomy 2007 Meeting Proceedings

    The 9th International Bioastronomy coneference: Molecules, Microbes and Extraterrestrial Life was organized by Commission 51 (Bioastronomy) of the International Astronomical Union, and by the UH NASA Astrobiology team. The meeting was held in San Juan, Puerto Rico from 16-20 July 2007. During the reporting period the Proceedings were finalized and will have a publication date of 2009.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Task 2.1.3 Aerosol Nucleation and Growth

    Organic macromolecular aerosols in the Titan atmosphere may contribute to the orange haze seen in the visible spectrum and can serve as the initial stage of prebiotic chemistry on Titan.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • CASS Planning

    The computational astrobiology summer school (CASS) is a two week program, followed by a semester of mentored independent work, which has the following goals:

    - To introduce computer science and engineering (CS&E) graduate students to the field of astrobiology, – To introduce astrobiologists to the tools and techniques that current methods in CS&E can provide, and – To encourage interdisciplinary projects that will result in advances in astrobiology.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Geochemical Signatures of Multicellular Life

    Organic molecules preserved in rocks provide a geological record of past organisms and processes. These complement the record left by visible organisms and can often provide information on the, otherwise invisible, microbial world. This part of the project is designed to improve our knowledge of 'molecular biosignatures’ now and in times past. This part of the project also offers a window into the presence of complex life prior to the point at which animals became large enough, or hard enough, to leave a visible record.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2 4.2
  • Origin of Life and Catalysis – Philosophical Considerations

    The philosophy origins of life focus group at the ABRC is interested in exploring the known physical constraints of the origins of life as well as examining the epistemic foundations on which origins of life thought are founded upon. To address these goals, the group consists of persons from divergent studies areas including chemistry and biochemistry, physics, philosophy, and history of science. Synergy resulting from a sustained group interaction of this multi-disciplinary team has resulted in the creation of a number of lines of inquiry that the group is pursuing.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.2
  • Reverse-Evolution of an RNA-based RNA Polymerase

    The RNA World Hypothesis suggests an RNA molecule is capable both of encoding information and replicating it. In essence, the RNA World Hypothesis predicts an RNA polymerase ribozyme. Since there are no extant RNA-based RNA polymerases, we must instead search the evolutionary fossil record for hints. Our primary goal is to test the hypothesis of Poole that the Small Subunit (SSU) of the ribosome may have evolved from an RNA-dependent RNA polymerase ribozyme.1 We will test the plausibility of an RNA polymerase origin of the SSU by using in vitro reverse evolution; If we can reverse-evolve the SSU into an RNA polymerase, we can demonstrate the a possible evolutionary pathway between a putative primordial ribozyme polymerase and modern ribosomes.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2
  • Project 4: Geochemical Steps Leading to the Origins of Life

    The project titled “Geochemical Steps Leading to the Origins of Life” sets a out a research object focusing on exploring the natural intersection of abiological organic chemistry and the mineral world. Assuming that life emerged on Earth as a consequence of natural, geochemical, processes. We ask what did the organic landscape look like before life, how did organic-mineral surface interactions affect this landscape, and can we identify any connections between this abiotic organic Earth and the subsequent emergence of life.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2
  • Task 2.2.1 Characterization of Aerosol Nucleation and Growth

    Aerosol nucleation in the Titan atmosphere may form the orange material seen in visible images.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Ribosome Paleontology

    We are establishing method to determine chronologies of ancient ribosomal evolution. One method, just published, uses structure-based and sequence-based comparisons of the LSUs of Haloarcula marismortui and Thermus thermophilus, along with an “onion approximation”. The results suggest that the conformation and interactions of both RNA and protein change, in an observable manner, over evolutionary time.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2
  • Probing the Structure and Nitrogen Reduction Activity of Iron-Sulfur Minerals

    Iron-sulfur compounds are common in both biological and geological systems. The adaptation of Fe-S clusters from the abiotic world to the biological world may have been an early event in the development of life on Earth and possibly a common feature of life elsewhere in the universe. The iron-sulfur mineral thrust of the ABRC is focused on examining the structure and reactivity of FeS minerals using nitrogen fixation as a model reaction.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 7.1 7.2
  • Origins of Functional Proteins and the Early Evolution of Metabolism

    The main goal of this project is to identify critical requirements for the emergence of biological complexity in early habitable environments by examining key steps in the origins and early evolution of catalytic functionality and metabolic reaction networks. Using proteins, which are the main catalytic agents in terrestrial organisms, we investigate whether enzymatic activity can arise from an inventory of polymers that have random sequences and that might have existed in habitable environments. We attempt the first demonstration of multiple origins of a single enzymatic function, and investigate experimentally how primordial proteins could evolve through the diversification of their structure and function. Building on this work and on our knowledge of ubiquitous protocellular functions and the constraints of prebiotic chemistry, we conduct computer simulations to elucidate fundamental principles that govern the coupled evolution of early metabolic reactions and their catalysts.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2 3.4
  • RNA Folding and Assembly

    We will characterize the assembly, structure and thermodynamics of the a-PTC by chemical mapping, including hydroxyl radical footprinting1,2 and SHAPE analysis,3 RNase H cleavage, temperature dependent hydrodynamics,4 and computational folding algorithms. In addition we will investigate the effect of freezing aqueous solutions of RNA and DNA molecules on their ability to assemble into larger more complex structures. Freezing nucleic acid solutions concentrates non-water molecules into small liquid pockets in the ice. This enables reactions that can promote the assembly of small segments of nucleic acids into larger complexes.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2 5.3
  • Project 7: Prebiotic Chemical Catalysis on Early Earth and Mars

    The “RNA World” hypothesis is the current paradigm for the origins of terrestrial life. This hypothesis proposes that the first life on Earth was based on RNA, and that RNA subsequently catalyzed life based on DNA. Our research is aimed at testing a key component of the paradigm, i.e., the efficiency with which RNA molecules form and grow under realistic conditions. We are investigating abiotic production and polymerization of RNA by catalysis on montmorillonite clays. We find that RNA chains some 50 units long can be formed in the laboratory from activated RNA monomers with montmorillonite as a catalyst, and that 12 of the 22 montmorillonites we tested are catalytic. A correlation is found between catalytic activity and charge: montmorillonites with a low negative charge are catalytic, those with a high negative charge are not.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2
  • Structure, Function, and Biosynthesis of the Complex Iron-Sulfur Clusters at the Active Sites of Nitrogenases and Hydrogenases

    Iron-sulfur clusters are thought to be among the most ancient cofactors in living systems. The iron-sulfur enzyme thrust is focused on examining the structure, mechanism, and biosynthesis of the complex Fe-S enzymes nitrogenase and hydrogenase. Biochemical, biophysical, and structure biology approaches are being employed to provide insights into complex iron-sulfur biosynthesis to establish paradigms for complex iron-sulfur cluster biosynthesis that can be placed in the context of the evolution of iron-sulfur motifs from the abiotic to biotic systems.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Task 2.2.2.1 Ultraviolet/infrared Spectroscopy of Ice Films

    Condensed phase chemistry in organic aerosols can produce large organic macromolecules.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Task 2.2.2.3 Aerosol Photoprocessing and Analysis

    Organic aerosols produced in the laboratory can be photoprocessed to simulate actual Titan tholin-producing chemistry.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Task 3.1 Reactions of Organics With Ices and Mineral Grains

    The formation of prebiotic chemical compounds on the Titan surface may be catalyzed by the presence of mineral grains.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Task 3.3 Solubility of Organics in Methane

    Liquid methane can serve as a solvent medium in which organic chemistry may occur in sites on the Titan surface.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • NASA Postdoctoral Program Research Summary

    We used the Swift observatory to study the gaseous composition and evolution of two very interesting comets (8P/Tuttle and C/2007 Lulin). The spectral ranges of Swift’s grisms (175-520 nm) encompass known cometary fluorescence bands of OH (306 nm), and of many other molecular fragments (e.g., NH, CS, CN, C2, fragment CO, etc.). Repeated observations of the two comets with Swift’s UV-Optical Telescope provided a unique dataset that reveals variations in the comet’s gas production rate on a scale of hours as well as months. As part of this investigation, much time and effort was dedicated to developing new analytical routines for processing the grism data. Further observations of different comets will provide insight in the chemical connection between parent- and fragment molecules.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2
  • The Commonality of Life in the Universe

    Is life a common outcome of physical and chemical processes in the universe? Around other stars, Titan-like environments are key astrobiology targets.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Developing New Sampling System, Collection of Juan De Fuca Ridge Basement Fluids

    Our Deep Biosphere project is designed to exploit the unprecedented opportunities provided by the new generation of long-term borehole- observatories installed on the flanks of the Juan de Fuca Ridge (JdFR) by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, to study the microbial geochemistry and ecology of the sediment-buried ocean basement. The Drill ship drills deep holes through the sediments into the underlying basaltic rocks and then installs a 'CORK’ observatory consisting of casings, fluid delivery lines with seafloor access-spigots, downhole instruments, and a top plug.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2 3.3 4.1 5.2 5.3
  • Thermodynamic Efficiency of Electron-Transfer Reactions in the Chlorophyll D-Containing Cyanobacterium, Acharyochloris Marina

    Photosynthesis is the only known process that produces planetary-scale biosignatures – atmospheric oxygen and the color of photosynthetic pigments — and it is expected to be successful on habitable extrasolar planets as well, due to the ubiquity of starlight as an energy source. How might photosynthetic pigments adapt to alternative environments? Could oxygenic photosynthesis occur at much longer wavelengths than the red? This project is approaching these questions by studying a recently discovered cyanobacterium, Acaryochloris marina, which performs oxygenic photosynthesis in environments depleted in visible light but enriched in far-red/near-infrared light. A. marina is the only known organism to have chlorophyll d (Chl d) to use photons in the far-red and near-infrared, whereas all other oxygenic photosynthetic organisms use chlorophyll a (Chl a) to utilize red photons. Whether A. marina is operating more efficiently or less than Chl a-utilizing organisms will indicate what wavelengths are the ultimate limit for oxygenic photosynthesis. We have been conducting lab measurements of energy storage in whole A. marina cells using pulsed, time-resolved photoacoustics (PTRPA, or PA), a laser technique that allows us to control the wavelength, amount, and timing of energy received by a sample of cells.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2 4.2 5.1 5.3 6.2 7.2
  • Formation of Carbon and Nitrogen-Rich Organics in Solar System Ices

    carbon and nitrogen-rich organics are essential to life as we know it, but how readily available were they on the primordial earth? clues about the composition of primordial material thar could be present come from irradiation experiments on the precursors already identified on interstellar ices

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2
  • Keck Astrochemistry Laboratory

    The overall goal of this project is to comprehend the chemical evolution of the Solar System. This will be achieved through an understanding of the formation of carbon-, hydrogen-, oxygen-, and nitrogen-bearing (CHON) molecules in ices of Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) by reproducing the space environment in a specially designed experimental setup. KBOs are small planetary bodies orbiting the sun beyond the planet Neptune, which are considered as the most primitive objects in the Solar System. A study of KBOs is important because they resemble natural ‘time capsules’ at a frozen stage before life developed on Earth. Our methodology is based on a comparison of the molecules formed in the experiments with the current composition of KBOs; such approach provides an exceptional potential to reconstruct the composition of icy Solar System bodies at the time of their formation billions of years ago. The significance of this project is that our studies elucidate the origin of biologically relevant molecules and help unravel the chemical evolution of the Solar System. Since KBOs are believed to be the main reservoir of short-period comets, which are considered as ‘delivery systems’ of biologically important molecules to the early Earth, our project also brings us closer to the understanding of how life might have emerged on Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2
  • Mineral-Catalyzed Coupling of Amino Acids to Polypeptides

    Enzymes carry out chemical functions within our body, and are produced from long chains of amino acids called polypeptides. Today, the manufacture of these long chains is made possible within our bodies by large 'machinery’ known as polymerases. However, these are vastly complex, and were almost certainly not present in the early stages of life. One question we are trying to answer here is whether or not it is possible to produce long chains of polypeptides under certain conditions which may be relevant to the origin of life, such as on the surface of a mineral.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 7.1 7.2
  • Quantification of the Disciplinary Roots of Astrobiology

    The questions of astrobiology span many scientific fields. This project analyzes databases of scientific literature to determine and quantify the diverse disciplinary roots of astrobiology. This is one component of a wider study to build a map of relationships between the constituent fields of astrobiology, so relevant knowledge in diverse fields can be most efficiently inform the study of life in the universe.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2