2010 Annual Science Report

NASA Ames Research Center Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

Executive Summary

The Ames NAI Team addresses the cosmic, planetary, and biological processes that collectively create habitable environments. We trace, spectroscopically, the cosmic evolution of organic molecules from the interstellar medium to protoplanetary disks, planetesimals and finally onto habitable bodies. We characterize the diversity of planetary systems emerging from protoplanetary disks, with a focus on the formation of planets that provide chemical raw materials, energy, and environments necessary to sustain prebiotic chemical evolution and complexity. We develop and evaluate a more quantitative methodology for assessing the habitability of early planetary environments – particularly Mars – via capabilities that will be, or might be, deployed in situ. Finally we 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. Our direct involvement in multiple NASA missions provides context, motivation, and ... Continue reading.

Field Sites
19 Institutions
4 Project Reports
62 Publications
2 Field Sites

Project Reports

  • 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 functional proteins and metabolic reaction networks. In particular, we investigate whether protein functionality can arise from an inventory of polymers with random sequences that might have naturally 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 constraints of prebiotic chemistry, we conduct computer simulations aimed at elucidating fundamental principles that govern coupled evolution of early metabolic reactions, their catalysts and transport across cell walls.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2 3.4
  • Mineralogical Traces of Early Habitable Environments

    The goal of our work is to discern the habitability (potential to support life) of ancient Martian environments, with an emphasis on understanding which environments could have supported more life than others. This information will help to guide the selection of sites on the Martian surface for future missions designed to seek direct evidence of life. Our approach has two main parts: 1. We will use the presence of specific minerals or groups of minerals – an analysis that can be performed robotically on Mars — to constrain the chemical and physical conditions of the ancient environments in which they formed. 2. We will work to understand how the ability of environments on Earth to support more or less biomass depends on these same physical and chemical conditions.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1
  • Cosmic Distribution of Chemical Complexity

    This project is aimed to improve our understanding of the connection between chemistry in space and the origin of life on Earth, and its possibility on 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. The work focuses upon molecular species that are interesting from a biogenic perspective and also upon 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
  • Disks and the Origins of Planetary Systems

    This task is concerned with understanding the evolution of complexity as primitive planetary bodies form in habitable zones. The planet formation process begins with fragmentation of large molecular clouds into flattened protoplanetary disks. This disk is in many ways an astrochemical “primeval soup” in which cosmically abundant elements are assembled into increasingly complex hydrocarbons and mixed in the dust and gas envelope within the disk. Gravitational attraction among the myriad small bodies leads to planet formation. If the newly formed planet is a suitable distance from its star to support liquid water at the surface, it is in the so-called “habitable zone.” The formation process and identification of such life-supporting bodies is the goal of this project.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 4.3