2009 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 6.2 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Evolution of Nitrogen Fixation, Photosynthesis, Hydrogen Metabolism, and Methanogenesis

    We have developed a new line of investigation to complement our work on the biochemistry of complex iron-sulfur cluster enzyme structure, function and biosynthesis with the aim of probing complex iron-sulfur enzyme evolution. We are studying the phylogenetic trajectory of multiple genes involved in complex iron-sulfur cluster function and biosynthesis to probe the evolutionary origin of aspect of hydrogen metabolism and modes of biological nitrogen fixation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • 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
  • Detectability of Biosignatures

    This goal of this project is to study our ability to remotely detect life on planets. Primarily, this applies to extrasolar planets – those that exist outside our solar system. The way we will search for life on these planets is by attempting to detect gases produced by life. For example, we could detect the life on modern-day Earth if we detected gases the presence of molecular oxygen (O2, the gas we breathe that is produced by plants and bacteria) and methane (CH4, which is produced by bacteria). These two gases can co-exist only with production rates so high that they are unsustainable without the presence of life on the planet.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 6.2
  • Interplanetary Pioneers – Final CAN-3 Report

    The possibility of life traveling from earth to beyond, and, in general, life traveling from planet to planet, has captured the public’s imagination for a century or more. We are now poised to assess this possibility with experimentation. In this project, we focus on halophiles – organisms that live in high salt environments – as potential earth life to survive space travel. Thus we have explored high UV and high salt environments, and have flown some of these organisms on European space missions. This year we also began to develop the use of high altitude ballooning to mimic travel beyond the surface of the earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.3 6.2
  • 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
  • Project 5: Geological-Biological Interactions

    This project focuses on a wide range of questions spanning understanding microbial diversity in extreme environments to the identification of biosignatures in modern and ancient rocks. In terms of environments, research in this project focuses on research at deep sea hydrothermal vents, desert sulfate deposits, arctic hydrothermal fields, as well as Paleoproterozoic terrains of Australia, Canada, and India. By learning more how life adapts to extreme environments on Earth, we hope to gain a better understanding of the limits of life on other worlds. By understanding better the signature of life recorded in ancient rocks, we hope to better refine our search stategies for the presence of life on other worlds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 5.1 6.1 6.2 7.1
  • Limits of Habitability

    The study of planetary habitability necessitates an interdisciplinary approach. The factors that can affect the habitability of planetary environments are numerous, and the disciplines that can contribute to their investigation and interpretation include, physics, chemistry, geology, biology, and astronomy to name a few.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.3 6.2
  • 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
  • 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
  • Subglacial Methanogenesis and Its Role in Planetary Carbon Cycling

    Methanogens are thought to be among the earliest emerging life forms. Today, the distribution of methanogens is narrowly constrained, due in part to the energetics of the reactions which support this functional class of organism (namely carbon dioxide reduction with hydrogen and acetate fermentation). Methanogens utilize a number of metalloenzymes that have active site clusters comprised of a unique array of metals. The goals of this project are 1) identifying a suite of biomarkers indicative of biological CH4 production 2). quantifying the flux of CH~4~ from sub-ice systems and 3). developing an understanding how life thrives at the thermodynamic limits of life. This project represents a unique extension of the ABRC and bridges the research goals of several nodes, namely the JPL-Icy Worlds team and the ASU-Follow the Elements team.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Viral Ecology and Evolution

    This project is aimed at probing the occurrence and evolution of archaeal viruses in the extreme environments in the thermal areas in Yellowstone National Park. Viruses are the most abundant life-like entities on the planet and are likely a major reservoir of genetic diversity for all life on the planet and these studies are aimed at providing insights into the role of viruses in the evolution of early life on Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • 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
  • Postdoctoral Fellow Report: Steven Mielke

    This project seeks to resolve the long-wavelength limit of oxygenic photosynthesis in order to constrain the range of extrasolar environments in which spectral signatures of biogenic oxygen might be found, and thereby guide future planet detecting and characterizing observatories.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 6.1 6.2 7.2
  • Stoichiometry of Life, Task 1: Laboratory Studies in Biological Stoichiometry

    Living things require a broad menu of chemical elements to function. This project aims to quantify the chemical elements required by prokaryotes – the class of terrestrial organisms thought most similar to those that might be present in extraterrestrial settings – through laboratory experiments. These experiments will also teach us the ways in which such organisms cope with scarcity of the bioessential elements nitrogen, phosphorus and iron. We are also conducting experiments to isolate micro-organisms that use the element arsenic in place of phosphorus, if they exist. In Year 1 we initiated the first stage of these experiments.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1
  • 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
  • Stoichiometry of Life, Task 2a: Field Studies – Yellowstone National Park

    We are investigating how the element requirements of microbes are affected by element availability in their environment in Yellowstone National Park, where there are extreme variations in the abundances of bioessential elements in addition to extremes of temperature and pH. In Year 1 we organized a multi-disciplinary field expedition to collect samples and conduct experiments. Analyses of these samples is now underway.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.2
  • The VPL Life Modules

    The Life Modules of the VPL are concerned with the modeling of biosphere processes for coupling with the VPL’s atmospheric and planetary models. These coupled models enable simulation of the impact of biogenic gases on atmospheric composition, of biota on the surface energy balance, and of the detectability of these in planetary spectra. The Life Modules team has engaged in previous work coupling 1D models in the VPL’s suite of planetary models, and current work now focuses on biosphere models coupled to 3D general circulation models (GCMs). Current project areas are: 1) development of a model of land-based ecosystem dynamics suitable for coupling with GCMs and generalizable for alternative planetary parameters, and 2) coupling of an ocean biogeochemistry model to GCMs.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 6.1 6.2 7.2
  • Stoichiometry of Life, Task 2b: Field Studies – Cuatro Cienegas

    Cuatro Cienegas is a unique biological preserve in which there is striking microbial diversity, potentially related to extreme scarcity of phosphorus. We aim to understand this relationship.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2
  • Kavli Symposium (Fall 2008)

    The Kavli Frontiers of Science symposia are jointly sponsored by the Kavli Foundation and the US National Academy of Sciences to bring together top young scientists in an interdisciplinary conference environment that encourages in-depth discussions related to exciting advances in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics, computer sciences, neurosciences and physics. As a Kavli fellow, and participant in these seminars, the UHNAI PI has organized a special astrobiology session at the fall 2008 Kavli symposium on the topic of Extrasolar planets, drawing participants from within the NAI. The purpose is to highlight the cutting edge science that is being accomplished in astrobiology through the NAI.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 6.2 7.2
  • PanSTARRS MBC Stamp Server and Detection Limits

    We have been developing the architecture to search for main belt comets (MBCs) in the upcoming Pan-STARRS1 all sky survey. MBCs are an important new reservoir of water in the inner solar system, and we hope to be detecting a steady stream of them in PS1 beginning in late 2009 or early 2010.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 6.2
  • 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