2010 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 3.4 Reports Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

Project Reports

  • 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    The Astrobiology Integrative Research Framework (AIRFrame) analyzes published and unpublished documents to identify and visualize implicit relationships between astrobiology’s diverse constituent fields.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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Project 1B: Proto-Cell Membrane Evolution May Have Been Directed by Mineral Surface Properties

    In the present project, we used both experimental and classical modeling approaches to examine the novel hypothesis that the surface chemistry of minerals in contact with self-assembling lipid vesicles (i.e., model protocells) controlled the stability of the vesicle membrane, causing membranolysis and preventing self-assembly in the case of minerals with certain surface properties, while other minerals were relatively inert. We also examined the role of solution chemistry and temperature cycling on lipid vesicle stability in contact with mineral surfaces. By understanding the role of natural geochemical parameters such as mineral surface chemistry, solution chemistry (pH, ionic strength, presence or absence of Ca2+), and temperature cycling on protocell membrane stability under variable conditions, we attempted to model potential aqueous environments where life may have originated such as lacustrine, tidal pool, and sub-aerial or submarine hydrothermal vents. Our project addresses NASA Astrobiology Institute’s (NAI) Roadmap goals of understanding the origins of cellularity and the evolution of mechanisms for survival at environmental limits, and NASA’s Strategic Goal of advancing scientific knowledge of the origin and evolution of the Earth’s biosphere and the potential for life elsewhere.

  • 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
  • Project 1C: Extra-Cellular Polymeric Substances as Armor Against Cell Membrane Rupture on Mineral Surfaces

    Our interdisciplinary project examined the hypotheses that bacterial cell membranes are ruptured in contact with specific mineral surfaces, and that biofilm-forming extra-cellular polymeric substances (EPS) may have evolved to shield against membrane rupture (cell lysis). Furthermore, we proposed that mineral reactivity towards membranolysis should depend on its surface properties such as charge, reactive area, or free radicals generated by radiation and impacts on early Earth, Mars, and other worlds. The effect of EPS on preservation in the rock record will also be examined. By understanding the mechanisms for membranolysis, especially under the extreme conditions of high radiation and heavy impacts during early planetary history, the project addresses the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s (NAI) Roadmap goals of understanding the origins of cellularity, the evolution of mechanisms for survival at environmental limits, and preservation of biosignatures, and NASA’s Strategic Goal of advancing scientific knowledge of the origin and evolution of the Earth’s biosphere and the potential for life elsewhere.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.4 5.1 7.1
  • 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
  • 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.

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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