2010 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 3.2 Reports Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

Project Reports

  • NAI Focus Group: Icy Satellites Environments Focus Group (ISEFoG)

    This focus group provides a forum for cross-team multidisciplinary discussions related to icy outer solar system satellite processes.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2
  • Biosignatures in Ancient Rocks

    This team of geologists, geochemists, paleontologists and biologists seeks signs of early life in ancient rocks from Earth. Working mostly on that part of Earth history before the advent of skeletons and other preservable hard parts in organisms, our group focuses on geochemical traces of life and their activities. We also investigate how life has influenced, and has been influenced by changes in the surface environment, including the establishment of an oxygen-rich environment and the initiation of extreme climate states including global glaciations. For this we use a combination of observations from modern analogous environments, studies of ancient rocks, and numerical modeling.

    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

    The Astrobiology Integrative Research Framework (AIRFrame) analyzes published and unpublished documents to identify and visualize implicit relationships between astrobiology’s diverse constituent fields. The main goal of the AIRFrame project is to allow researchers and the public to discover and navigate across related information from different disciplines.

    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 2010

    The Astrobiology Graduate Student conference is a conference organized by astrobiology graduate students for astrobiology grad students. It provides a comfortable peer forum in which to communicate and discuss research progress and ideas.

    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
  • An Atomic Level Description of the Specific Interactions Between Nascent Peptide and Ribosome Exit Tunnel

    Ribosome peptide exit tunnel plays a crucial role in the functioning of ribosomes across all domains of life.1 2 3 Before the transition of nascent peptides to mature functional proteins, they must travel through the functionally conserved peptide exit tunnel. 4 Additionally, the latent chaperone activity of the exit tunnel 5 6 suggests its role in ribosomal evolution, in the transition from short non-structured peptides to extant globular proteins. The wall of the tunnel is constructed mostly from RNA. As high as 80% of the tunnel is RNA in some species. 4 Our objective is to gain an understanding of the molecular basis of the latent chaperone activity and the preferential construction of the ribosome exit tunnel from the RNA component of the ribosome. Toward this end we have designed ketolide-peptide compounds (peptolides) to probe the mechanisms employed by the ribosome to, (i) facilitate in-tunnel folding of nascent peptides and (ii) distinguish between some peptide sequences while facilitating unhindered passage of the vast majority of peptides through the peptide exit tunnel.

  • 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
  • Task 1.1.2 Models of the Internal Dynamics: Formation of Liquids in the Subsurface and Relationships With Cryovolcanism

    The rate of the heat flow through the Titan ice crust sets a limit on how long water can exist in liquid form on the surface of Titan

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Amino Acid Alphabet Evolution

    A standard “alphabet” of just 20 amino acids builds the proteins that interact to form metabolism of all life on Earth (rather like the English of 26 letters can be linked into words that interact in sentences and paragraphs to produce meaningful writing). However, considerable research from many scientific disciplines points to the idea that many other amino acids are made by non-biological processes throughout the universe. A natural question is why did life on our planet “choose” the members of its standard alphabet?

    Our project seeks to gather and organize the diverse 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 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Complex Chemical Networks in Astrobiology

    Many of the building blocks for prebiotic chemistry form in dark molecular clouds — dense regions of interstellar gas and dust from which stars and planetary systems are also born. Sophisticated chemical models have been developed to understand the complex network of reactions that can convert simple precursor molecules to the complex organics that are often found in meteorites and comets. We have begun to apply the tools of network theory — a branch of mathematics that studies interconnected complex systems from cellular metabolism to Facebook — to gain more insight into the structure of these interstellar chemical networks. This approach allows us to make comparisons between complex chemical networks in biology, astronomy, and planetary science, searching for unifying general principles and critical differences between living and non-living systems.

  • 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 4.6 billion years ago. Our goal is to test the hypothesis that the building blocks of life were synthesized in space and delivered to the early Earth by comets and asteroids. We use computers to simulate shock waves that energize the gas and dust in proto-planetary disks and drive physical and chemical processes that would not otherwise occur. Our work seeks specifically to determine (i) whether asteroids and comets were heated to temperatures that favor prebiotic chemistry; and (ii) whether the requisite heating mechanisms operate in other planetary systems forming today.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 3.2
  • Habitability of Icy Worlds

    Habitability of Icy Worlds investigates the habitability of liquid water environments in icy worlds, with a focus on what processes may give rise to life, what processes may sustain life, and what processes may deliver that life to the surface. Habitability of Icy Worlds investigation has three major objectives. Objective 1, Seafloor Processes, explores conditions that might be conducive to originating and supporting life in icy world interiors. Objective 2, Ocean Processes, investigates the formation of prebiotic cell membranes under simulated deep-ocean conditions, and Objective 3, Ice Shell Processes, investigates astrobiological aspects of ice shell evolution.

    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
  • Experimental Model System – an Ancestral Magnesium-RNA-Peptide Complex

    We are developing small model systems in which the interactions of rPeptides, Mg2+ ions and 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 observes an autonomous rRNA:Mg2+-mc complex in Domain III, which appears to fold independent of the rest of the LSU. Ribosomal protein L23 associates closely with this rRNA: Mg2+-mc complex in both bacteria and archaea, suggesting the possibility of distinct evolutionary origin. We will define the smallest Domain III rRNA and associated peptide segments sufficient for assembly of this complex, and will characterize their assembly and interactions with a-PTC and 23S lacking Domain III by a variety of experimental and computational methods.

  • Path to Flight

    Our technology investigation, a Path to Flight for astrobiology, utilizes instrumentation built with non-NAI funding to carry out three science investigations namely habitability, survivability and detectability of life. The search for life requires instruments and techniques that can detect biosignatures from orbit and in-situ under harsh conditions. Advancing this capacity is the focus of our Technology Investigation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 7.1 7.2
  • Task 1.2 Interaction of Methane/ethane With Water Ice

    The extent to which hydrocarbon liquids interact with the bedrock water ice sets the stage for reactions leading to the formation of prebiotic oxygen-containing organic compounds on the Titan surface.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • 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.

  • Fostering Synergetic Interactions Among NAI Teams Reconstructing Early Life on Earth, and Attaching a Time Scale to the Genomic Record of Life

    Today there is a nearly universal consensus that a tree cannot describe the early evolution of life, but there is not yet a consensus about how to describe life’s early evolution. Our lab is developing new methods to incorporate symbioses and endosymbioses into reconstructions of early life on Earth and thereby represent life as a combination of tree like- and symbiotic like- evolution. Using these improved methods, we are attaching a time scale to the rings that represent this early evolution, in order to better understand significant early events in Earth’s history like the origin of oxygenic photosynthesis.

  • Bioastronomy 2007 Meeting Proceedings

    This is the published volume of material from an astrobiology meeting hosted by our lead team in 2007 in San Juan Puerto Riceo. The book includes 60 papers covering the breadth of astrobiology, and developed a new on-line astrobiology glossary.

    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
  • Minerals to Enzymes: The Path to CO Dehydrogenase/Acetyl – CoA Synthase

    The relationship between structure and reactivity of iron-sulfur minerals and the active sites of iron-sulfur enzymes is too strong to be coincidental. We and others have proposed that the emergence and genesis of iron-sulfur cluster enzymes occurred by a stepwise process in which mineral motifs were first nested in simple organic polymers and then in response to selective pressure evolved specific gene encoded protein nest that confer high specific enzyme activities. We are examining this hypothesis through nesting NiFeS motifs in a variety of organic nest and examining the structural determinants of reactivity.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 7.1 7.2
  • 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.

  • Task 2.1.1 Master Atmospheric Chemistry Simulation

    The master atmospheric chemistry model will contribute to the understanding of the extent to which organic chemistry in atmospheric processes produces complex compounds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Developing New Biosignatures

    The development and experimental testing of potential indicators of life is essential for providing a critical scientific basis for the exploration of life in the cosmos. In microbial cultures, potential new biosignatures can be found among isotopic ratios, elemental compositions, and chemical changes to the growth media. Additionally, life can be detected and investigated in natural systems by directing cutting-edge instrumentation towards the investigation of microbial cells, microbial fossils, and microbial geochemical products. Our efforts are focused on creating innovative approaches for the analyses of cells and other organic material, finding ways in which metal abundances and isotope systems reflect life, and developing creative approaches for using environmental DNA to study present and past life.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.4 4.1 5.2 5.3 7.1 7.2
  • Survivability of Icy Worlds

    As part of our Survivability of icy Worlds investigation, we examine the similarities and differences between the abiotic chemistry of planetary ices irradiated with ultraviolet photons (UV), electrons, and ions, and the chemistry of biomolecules exposed to similar conditions. Can the chemical products resulting from these two scenarios be distinguished? Can viable microbes persist after exposure to such conditions? These are motivating questions for our investigation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.2 3.2 5.1 5.3 7.1 7.2
  • Task Atmospheric State and Dynamics

    The physical conditions in the Titan atmosphere set the context for the formation of organic compounds in the atmosphere.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Molecular Paleontology of Iron-Sulfur Enzymes

    In this project we are attempting to trace back in the evolutionary record using specific genetic events as markers. We are using specific gene fusion and gene duplication events in the genetic record to place a chronological sequence to the advent of nitrogen fixation, certain modes of hydrogen metabolism, and both anoxygenic and oxygenic photosynthesis.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1
  • High Level Theory – the Role of Mg2+ in Ribosome Assembly

    We investigated a unique role of Mg2+ ions to form stable complexes with ribosomal RNA, and specifically their role in a formation of ancestral peptidyl transferase center using modern quantum mechanics methods. The interaction energies of ribosomal RNA with single and multiple Mg2+ cations are computed in the gas phase and water, and partitioned into specific tems. RNA-Mg interactions are compared to those with other metals, to determine why Mg2+ plays a special role in RNA folding. Additionally, we hypothesize a possible unique role of Fe2+ in a formation of ribosomal catalytic centers during early stages of life. The project is performed using NASA’s HEC supercomputer recourses.

  • Computational Astrobiology Summer School

    The Computational Astrobiology Summer School (CASS) is an excellent opportunity for graduate students in computer science and related areas to learn about astrobiology, and to carry out substantial projects related to the field.

    The two-week on-site part of the program is an intensive introduction to the field of astrobiology. NASA Astrobiology Institute scientists present their work, and the group discusses ways in which computational tools (e.g. models, simulations, data processing applications, sensor networks, etc.) could improve astrobiology research. Also during this time, participants define their projects, with the help of the participating NAI researchers. On returning to their home institutions, participants work on their projects, under the supervision of a mentor, with the goal of presenting their completed projects at an astrobiology-related conference the following year.

    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

    This project aims to identify geochemical fossils (biomarkers) in sediments that reflect the transition from microbial life forms to their multicellular animal descendants.

  • PHL 278: A Gateway Course for a Minor in Astrobiology

    We have recently developed obtained Montana Board of Regents for an undergraduate minor in Astrobiology at Montana State University. The Minor includes courses in Earth Sciences, Physics, Astronomy, Microbiology, Ecology, Chemistry, and Philosophy. Two new courses have been developed as part of the minor, one of which is a gateway or introductory course examines the defining characteristics of life on earth as well as the challenges of a science that studies life and its origin. The other course which will be offered fall 2011 is the capstone course for the minor which will delved into the science of Astrobiology in more detail and targeted for Juniors and Seniors that have fulfilled the majority of the requisite course requirements for the curriculum.

    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
  • Molecular Resurrection of the Ancestral Peptidyl Transferase Center

    We have resurrected, reconstructed, and are currently reconstituting a model of the a-PTC (ancestral Peptidyl Transferase Center), which we believe to have evolved around 4 billion years ago. The proposed a-PTC contains 644 nucleotides of ancestral ribosomal RNA (a-rRNA), five ancestral ribosomal peptides (a-rPeptides), and inorganic cations. Here we show data of the a-rRNA folding with Mg2+ and a-rPeptides

  • Task Atmospheric Observations

    The observed organic haze in the Titan atmosphere is a result of abiotic atmospheric synthesis chemical processes.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • 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.

  • Radical SAM Enzyme Functional Diversity and Evolution

    The role of radical generating iron-sulfur enzymes in making modification to iron-sulfur motifs in biology are key to the maturation of nitrogen fixing and hydrogen oxidizing enyzme activities. These enzymes act through a mechanism analogous to what has been termed ligand assisted catalysis in discussions of tuning the reactivity of iron sulfur mineral motifs before the advent of life. This strong parallel between biological and abiotic processes provides a basis to better understand the transition from prebiotic chemistry to biochemistry or the transition from the nonliving to the living EArth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4
  • Evolution of Protoplanetary Disks

    Drs. Aki Roberge and Carol Grady are pursuing studies related to Theme 2 of the NASA GSFC Astrobiology Node, “From Molecular Cores to Planets: Our Interstellar Heritage.” Over the last year, they have begun work on two Open Time Key Projects for the Herschel Space Observatory, an ESA mission launched in May 2009. Herschel is expected to spearhead the next big advances in our knowledge of planet formation, protoplanetary disk evolution, and debris disks. One project (GASPS) will illuminate the evolution of gas abundances and chemistry in protoplanetary disks over the planet-forming phase. The other (DUNES) will sensitively probe the Sun’s nearest neighbors for signs of cold debris disks associated with extrasolar Kuiper Belts. Both projects have begun to produce exciting results, including discovery of a possible new class of ultra-cold debris disks that challenge theories of debris disk evolution and planet formation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.1 3.2
  • Task 2.2.1 Characterization of Aerosol Nucleation and Growth

    Laboratory experiments of aerosol formation in the Titan atmosphere provide input to model simulations of atmospheric processes that can lead to the formation of large organic compounds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Project 7: Prebiotic Chemical Catalysis on Early Earth and Mars

    The “RNA World” hypothesis is the current paradigm for the origins of terrestrial life. Our research is aimed at testing a key component of this paradigm: the efficiency with which RNA molecules form and grow under realistic conditions. We are studying abiotic production and polymerization of RNA by catalysis on montmorillonite clays. The catalytic efficiency of different montmorillonites are determined and compared, with the goal of determining which properties distinguish good catalysts from poor catalysts. We are also investigating the origin of montmorillonites, to test their probable availability on the early Earth and Mars, and the nature of catalytic activity that could have led to chiral selectivity on Earth.

  • Rationalized Chemical Surface Modifications

    Using biological examples such as nitrogen fixation by nitrogenase, hydrogen evolution and uptake by hydrogenases, and reversible CO/CO2 conversion by CO dehydrogenase, we began to study the effect of heterometal (Mo, V, Ni) substitution in iron-sulfur minerals and particles. We have successfully bound molybdenum sulfide on pyrite mineral surfaces and exploring the synthetic feasibility of doping Ni into freshly precipitated FeS particles. Preliminary reactivity studies indicated higher yields in formation of ammonia from nitrogen oxides at hydrothermal conditions relative to the pure iron-sulfur systems.

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

    These experiments explore to what extent long wavelength photons, the main solar radiation penetrating deep into the Titan atmosphere, can initiate chemical reactions in Titan atmospheric ices.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Ribosome Paleontology

    We are inventing methodologies to determine the chronology of ribosomal origin and evolution. Our premise, which is generally accepted, is that substantial information relating to the origins and early development of the translation machinery remains imprinted in the ribosome: in the sequences, folding, assembly, molecular interactions, and functions of the ribosome’s various macromolecules and small molecule affectors. To this end, we are developing new methods for ribosomal paleontology. We are using these methods to determine the relative ages of ribosomal components and subsystems, and to understand fundamental aspects of the folding and assembly of RNA and protein. We will develop timelines for the history of the ribosome as a whole, as well as for various sub-processes such as initiation, termination, and translocation. The results of these studies will interface ribosomal history with other keys relating to the origin of life, including the origin of proteins and RNA, the emergence of the genetic code, the origin of chirality, and the nature of the last common ancestor.

  • Task Aerosol Photoprocessing and Analysis

    A laboratory device is being constructed to simulate the condensation of aerosols in Titan’s atmosphere for exploring the possible effects of exposure of these aerosols to solar radiation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • FTT Catalysis of Organic Materials in the Solar Nebula

    The first results from our experiments to simultaneously trap noble gases while synthesizing the macromolecular organic coating on amorphous iron silicate grains were reported at the 2010 LPSC in March and were carried out in collaboration with Drs. Charles Hohenberg and Alex Meshik at Washington University. Grain coatings were made at temperatures of 873K and 673K, yet significant quantities of Xenon and Krypton were trapped while no detectable levels of either Ar or Ne were observed above blank level. FTT synthesis in the solar nebula probably took place at much lower temperatures and the observed trapping of heavy noble gases at such high temperatures is very encouraging for the low temperature studies that we will begin this spring.

  • 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.

  • Structure, Reactivity, and Biosynthesis of Cataylic Iron-Sulfur Clusters

    We are examining the biosynthesis of complex iron-sulfur cluster to determine the specific chemistry associated with modifying iron-sulfur motifs in biology for different functions. We then relate the chemistry associated with these modifying reactions to reactions that could potentially modify iron-sulfur mineral motifs in the early non-living Earth to promote analogous reactivity.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 7.1 7.2
  • High Energy Observations of Planets and Comets

    We used the Swift high-energy mission to acquire UV spectroscopy of several comets, amongst which comet 81P/Wild-2 (the target of the Stardust mission) and comet Lulin. These data allowed us to derive gas production rates of OH (water) as well as various organic species that cannot easily be observed from Earth.

  • Task 3.1.1 Reactions of Organics With Ices and Mineral Grains

    Chemistry catalyzed by mineral grains on the Titan surface, for example a result of meteoritic infall, might lead to the formation of prebiotic compounds resulting from the insertion of oxygen into organic compounds of atmospheric origin.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Surface Chemistry on Iron-Sulfur Minerals

    Progress has been made in defining competitive abiotic pathways for reducing nitrogen compounds to ammonia from nitrogen oxides relative to the dinitrogen. Using pyrite mineral surfaces and freshly precipitated Fe-S particles, we showed that under hydrothermal conditions nitrite (NO2-), nitrate (NO3-), as well as nitric oxide (NO) can be converted to ammonia to comparable yields than starting from dinitrogen (N2). Formation of ammonia or ammonium ion in aqueous solution is considered as an essential step toward creating amino acids that are key building blocks of life.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 7.1 7.2
  • Task 3.1.2 Heterogeneous Chemistry

    There are a variety of heterogenous surface chemical processes possible in the Titan environment that can be simulated in laboratory experiments to determine how effective each may be in leading to the synthesis of prebiotic chemistry.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • The ABRC Philosophy of Astrobiology and the Origin of Life Discussion Group

    At Montana State University we have developed a think tank that involves Philsophers and Scientists and different points in their careers (Professor, Graduate Students, and Undergraduate Students) for the discussion of aspects of Origin of Life Theories. The think tank team has tackled a number of interesting problems and has presented there findings at national and international meetings and published their findings in the journal “Origin of Life and Evolution or Biospheres”.

  • Research Activities in the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory

    We are a laboratory dedicated to the study of organic compounds derived from Stardust and future sample return missions, meteorites, lab simulations of Mars, interstellar, proto-planetary, and cometary ices and grains, and instrument development. Like forensic crime shows, the Astrobiology Analytical Laboratory employs commercial analytical instruments. However, ours are configured and optimized for small organics of astrobiological interest instead of blood, clothing, etc.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 3.1 3.2 7.1
  • Task 3.3.1 Solubility of Organics in Methane

    The first step in understanding what chemistry might occur in the Titan lakes requires understanding the degree to which organics can actually dissolve in liquid hydrocarbons.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Task 3.3.2 Solubility in Lakes

    The solubility of organics in hydrocarbon lakes is a key limiting factor to the extent of chemistry that can occur in Titan lakes.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • The Cosmic Ice Laboratory

    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, studies of amino-acid destruction were begun, projects on ethane and carbonic acid were completed, and better quantification of Titan organics became possible through our experiments. All of this work is part of the Comic Ice Laboratory’s continuing contributions toward understanding the chemistry of biologically-related molecules and chemical reactions in extraterrestrial environments.

  • Thermodynamic Efficiency of Electron-Transfer Reactions in the Chlorophyll D-Containing Cyanobacterium, Acharyochloris Marina

    Photosynthesis produces planetary-scale biosignatures – atmospheric oxygen and the color of photosynthetic pigments. 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 using a laser technique to study the recently discovered cyanobacterium, Acaryochloris marina, which uses the chlorophyll d pigment to perform its photosynthesis at wavelengths longer than those used by the much more prevalent chlorophyll a. 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.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2 4.2 5.1 5.3 6.2 7.2
  • Task 3.4 Tholin Chemical Analysis

    New techniques need to be developed to characterize the chemical composition of tholins at the molecular structural level.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Virtual Catalysis From Molecular Beam Scattering

    Molecular beam/surface scattering experiments provide a controlled environment for modeling abiotic processes at the interface of lytho- and atmosphere. Specifically, it has been proposed that exposed rock surfaces may have played a role in modifying activated atmospheric molecules in the presence of UV radiation toward the building blocks of life. We have found that extended exposure of pyrite mineral surfaces to hydrogen atoms creates a reduced iron surface. The reduced state and the modified geometric structure of the surface iron atoms were confirmed by X-ray spectroscopy. Furthermore, this modified pyrite surface shows remarkable chemical reactivity in converting the hyperthermal beam of N2 to ammonia.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 7.1 7.2
  • X-Ray Characterization of Modified Fe-S Mineral Surfaces

    High energy X-ray radiations generated by tunable synchrotron lightsources were used to characterize both the location of the electrons and the atomic centers in modified Fe-S minerals and particles. We have exploited the complementary information content of three different detections techniques in both soft and hard X-ray energy range. We confirmed the formation of a reduced pyrite structure from hydrogen atom exposure experiments. The formation of a reduced pyrite surface is relevant to small molecule activation processes of abiotic molecules toward formation of more complex molecules, such as amino and nucleic acids.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.1 3.2 3.3 7.1 7.2
  • Task 3.5 Titan Genetics

    This project addresses the question of how complex molecules might be formed in liquid hydrocarbons, rather than liquid water.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Stoichiometry of Life – Task 1c – Laboratory Studies – the Role of Arsenic in Microbial Physiology, Ecology, and Evolution

    It has previously been assumed that arsenic (or its more common form, arsenate) acts only as a poison for living things. However, As is very close to the nutrient element phosphorus (P; phosphate) in the Periodic Table suggesting that possibility that under some conditions organisms might use arsenate instead of phosphate in key molecules. This study examines microbes isolated from a high arsenate, low phosphate environment (Mono Lake, CA) to see whether or not they can grow on arsenate in the absence of phosphate and if As is incorporated into major molecules.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2 5.1 5.3 6.1
  • The Commonality of Life in the Universe

    This research considers under what conditions and where in the Universe Titan might be habitable.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3
  • Quantification of the Disciplinary Roots of Astrobiology

    While astrobiology is clearly an interdisciplinary science, this project seeks to address the question of how interdisciplinary it is. We are reviewing published works across a broad range of scholarly databases, comparing disciplinary indicators such as subject terms, journal titles and author affiliations, and creating a computational model to identify and compare the makeup of astrobiological research literature in terms of the proportion of work that come from constituent fields.

    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