2009 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 4.2 Reports Reporting  |  JUL 2008 – AUG 2009

Project Reports

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Environmental Oxygen and the Rise of Metazoans

    We seek to understand when and how levels of oxygen rose in the environment,
    and how this rise may have impacted the evolution of complex life.

  • Evolution and Development of Sensory and Nervous Systems in the Basal Branches of the Animal Tree

    Sensory and Nervous systems are intimately related to the complexity, motility and environmental responsiveness that characterize animal life. We examine the early evolution of animal sensory and nervous systems through investigation of neural markers, as well as developmental gene expression and function in basal branching animals, including jellyfish, polychaete worms, and sponges.

  • Genomic Relationships Among Basal Metazoans

    The origin of animals, and animal complexity, requires an accurate and precise understanding of both the phylogenetic interrelationship among the earliest evolved animals and the paleoecological milieu within which they evolved. Our work has shown that sponges are indeed the first animals that evolved that still have living descendants, and that sponges are not a natural group. Instead, some sponges are more closely related to more complex animals like humans and jellyfish than they are to other sponges (e.g., bath sponges). This suggests that the origins of animal complexity is rooted in sponge paleobiology, and that the earliest animals were designed to eat bacteria and organic carbon instead of other large eukaryotes like other sponges or plants.

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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.

  • Metabolic Networks From Single Cells to Ecosystems

    Metabolic networks perform some of the most fundamental functions in living cells, including energy transduction and building block biosynthesis. While these are the best characterized networks in living systems, understanding their evolutionary history and complex wiring is still a major open question in biology. Here we use mathematical models and computer simulations to understand how metabolic networks gradually evolved the degree of organization necessary to sustain complex multicellular life. In particular, we ask (i) how metabolism changed as the level of oxygen gradually rose in the atmosphere, (ii) what metabolic structures are associated with cell-cell communication, and (iii) whether general optimality principles can help understand the architecture of biochemical networks.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.2 6.1
  • Modelling Planetary Albedo

    What kind of environments could provide opportunities for life in general and for the advent of complex life specifically to emerge? If there were complex life present, what features would it produce? Could we remotely characterize such habitats and the features of complex life on extrasolar planets light-years away with current and future NASA missions?
    These are the three main questions we work on in this part of the project.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 4.2 6.2 7.2
  • Origins of Multicellularity

    One of the earliest events in the evolution of animals was the origin of multicellularity. By studying the closest living relatives of animals, the choanoflagellates, we can begin to reconstruct the biology of the unicellular ancestors from which all living animals evolved.

  • Paleoecology of the Mistaken Point Biota

    The origins of animals has remained shrouded in mystery since the origins of paleontology, principally because of their abrupt appearance in rocks dates at around 530 Ma with little or no sign of possible antecedents in Precambrian rocks. This does not mean though that older rocks are devoid of life – indeed rocks of the last half of the Ediacaran period (~580-542 Ma) are chock full of interesting but enigmatic and unmistakably non-animal forms. Maybe the most interesting of these are the rangeomorphs, fractally-organized organic forms seemingly designed to feed on dissolved nutrients in the sea water via passive absorption across their bodies. Curiously modern sponges are also designed to feed on nutrients extracted directly from sea water, but they do so in a fundamentally different manner. Why would these rocks have one type of organization but not the other when both work equally well, all things being equal? Our recent exploration of these rock in the Mistaken Point sections of Newfoundland have revealed that one already described taxon, Thectardis, might indeed be a sponge, and as such the oldest known macroscopic animal form.

  • Paleontological Investigations of the Advent and Maintenance of Multicellular Life

    We have focused research on functional physiological investigations of early land plants, products of an origin of complex multicellularity distinct from the events that gave rise to animals. We have been able to show show basic attributes of anatomy were modified to facilitate physiological adaptation of early land plants. We also completed a functional analysis of early multicelullar organisms that stresses the constaints imposed by diffusion and the means of circumventing them.

  • Deep Biosphere Workshop

    This is a Workshop on the use of borehole CORK observatories for microbiological and hydrogeological studies. It is planned to be an international workshop including European and Asian participation. We are also actively targeting early career researchers and those not yet actively involved in deep marine CORK observatory research.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.2 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2
  • Stromatolites in the Desert: Analogs to Other Worlds

    Cuatro Cienegas Basin, a desert oasis in the Chihuahua desert of central Mexico, provides a proxy for an earlier time in Earth’s history when microbes dominated the scenery. The basin hosts active, growing stomatolites, communities of microbes that are covered in carbonates, principally through the action of metabolic processes within the community. Researchers from several NAI teams are actively researching and creating experimental procedures to understand small scale and large scale evolution within these communities, using tools from biology, geology, and astronomy.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2
  • 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
  • Understanding Past Earth Environments

    This project examines the evolution of the Earth over time. This year we examined and expanded the geological record of Earth’s history, and ran models to help interpret those data. Models were also used to simulate what the early Earth would look like if viewed remotely through a telescope similar to NASA’s Terrestrial Planet Finder mission concept. We focused our efforts on the Earth as it existed in prior to and during the rise of atmospheric oxygen 2.4 billion years ago, as this was one of the most dramatic and important events in the evolution of the Earth and its inhabitants.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1
  • Stoichiometry of Life, Task 3a: Ancient Records – Geologic

    The primary goal of this effort is to understand the evolving redox state of the atmosphere and ocean at critical intervals in Earth history, its effect on the availability of bioessential elements, and the consequences for evolution. In support of this goal, a major effort is underway to analyze, at high resolution, ~2.5- to 1.5-billion-year-old drill core samples so that we can better understand the distribution and evolution of early eukaryotic organisms at a variety of spatial and temporal scales. Additional efforts focus on characterizing life and environment leading in to the Cambrian explosion of metazoan life.

  • Stoichiometry of Life, Task 4: Biogeochemical Impacts on Planetary Atmospheres

    The abundance of molecular oxygen in planetary atmospheres may be a useful way to look for evidence of life. The amount of photosynthetically produced oxygen that accumulates in an atmosphere depends in part on the export of photosynthetically produced organic carbon from the ocean surface to the seafloor, which in turn may depend on the availability of bioessential elements. We are using a computer model to determine how this carbon export processes might operate in an ocean dominated by prokaryotes rather than eukaryotes, as may have been common in Earth’s past and as an analog for hypothetical extrasolar planets.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.2 6.1 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