2010 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 6.2 Reports Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

Project Reports

  • 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
  • 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
  • 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    The Astrobiology Integrative Research Framework (AIRFrame) analyzes published and unpublished documents to identify and visualize implicit relationships between astrobiology’s diverse constituent fields.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
  • Detectability of Life

    Detectability of Life investigates the detectability of chemical and biological signatures on the surface of icy worlds, with a focus on spectroscopic techniques, and on spectral bands that are not in some way connected to photosynthesis.Detectability of life investigation has three major objectives: Detection of Life in the Laboratory, Detection of Life in the Field, and Detection of Life from Orbit.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 2.1 2.2 4.1 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Biosignatures in Extraterrestrial Settings

    The team will investigate the abundance of sulfur gases and elucidate how these gases can be expected to evolve with time on young terrestrial planets. They will continue studies of planet formation in the presence of migration and model radial transport of volatiles in young planetary systems, and will be involved with searches for M star planetary companions and planets around K-giant stars.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 4.1 4.3 6.2 7.1
  • 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
  • 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
  • Functional Based Habitability – Defining the Environmental Factors That Constrain Modes of Microbial Metabolism

    To set the stage for space exploration and the search for life in the universe, it is necessary to establish the boundaries that define habiltability on Earth. Previous studies have emphasized using simple binary parameters to establish where life occurs and where life does not occur on Earth. We are attempting to take this to another level and establish through mutlivariable statistics the parameters that not only constrain the life but what parameters constrain the set of metabolic processes that sustain life as a function of environment.

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

    In this project VPL team members explore the nature and detectability of biosignatures, global signs of life in the atmosphere or on the surface of a planet. Work this year focused on the build up and detectability of sulfur-based biosignatures in early Earth-like atmospheres, especially for planets orbiting stars cooler than our Sun. We also explored the potential non-biological generation of oxygen and ozone in early Earth-like atmospheres, which could result in a “false positives” for photosynthetic life. In parallel, we worked on acquiring and getting running two simulators for telescopes that will one day be able to observe and determine the properties of extrasolar terrestrial planets.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 6.2
  • 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
  • Project 2A: Chemolithotrophic Microbial Oxidation of Basalt Glass

    Ferrous iron (Fe(II)) can serve as an energy source for a wide variety of chemolithotrophic microorganisms (organisms that gain energy from metabolism of inorganic compounds). Fe(II) oxidation may have played a role in past (and possibly, present) life on Mars, whose crust is rich in Fe(II)-bearing silicate minerals (e.g. ultramafic basalt rocks). The goal of this project is to determine whether an established chemolithoautotrophic Fe(II)-oxidizing, nitrate-reducing culture can grow by oxidation of Fe(II) in basalt glass. Experiments showed that the culture is able to oxidize a significant portion (approximately 1%) of the Fe(II) content of fresh basalt glass from Kilauea, a shield volcano in Hawaii that represents an analog for ancient volcanic activity on Mars. The ratio of Fe(II) oxidized to nitrate reduced was consistent with the expected 1:5 stoichiometry, suggesting that the culture oxidized Fe(II) with nitrate in a manner analogous to its metabolism of other (e.g. aqueous) Fe(II) forms.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 6.2 7.1
  • 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
  • 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
  • Deep (Sediment-Buried Basement) Biosphere

    The ocean crust comprises the largest aquifer on earth and there is increasing evidence that supports the presence of actively growing microbial communities within basaltic porewaters.

    Advanced Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) circulation obviation retrofit kit (CORK) observatories provide a unique opportunity to sample these otherwise inaccessible deep subseafloor habitats at the basalt-sediment transition zone. Aging porewaters remain isolated within this sediment-buried upper oceanic basement, subjected to increasing temperatures and pressures as plates move away from spreading ridges.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Modelling Planetary Albedo & Biomarkers in Rocky Planets’/moons Spectra

    The recent discovery of several potentially habitable Super-Earths (planets up to about 10x the mass of our own Earth that could be rocky) and the first nearby super-Earth planets around the habitable Zone of Gl581, has proven that we can already detect potentially habitable planets and makes this research extremely relevant. We model atmospheric spectral signatures, including biosignatures, of known and hypothetical exoplanets that are potentially habitable.
    The atmospheric characterization of such Super-Earths and potentially habitable Moons, will allow us to explore the condition on the first detectable rocky exoplanets and potentially characterize the first detectable Habitable Exoplanet.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 4.2 6.2 7.2
  • 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
  • Stromatolites in the Desert: Analogs to Other Worlds

    In this task biologists go to field sites in Mexico to better understand the environmental effects on growth rates for freshwater stromatolites. Stromatolites are microbial mat communities that have the ability to calcify under certain conditions. They are believed to be an ancient form of life, that may have dominated the planet’s biosphere more than 2 billion years ago. Our work focuses on understanding these communities as a means of characterizing their metabolisms and gas outputs, for use in planetary models of ancient environments.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2
  • Viral Ecology and Evolution

    We are interested in studying the viruses inhabiting the acidic hot springs within Yellowstone. We hypothesize that further understanding the viral dynamics, diversity, and composition will aid in the understanding of early Earth and how cellular life may have evolved.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2
  • Stoichiometry of Life, Task 1a: Experimental Studies – Cellular Stoichiometry Under Nutrient Limitation in Chemostats

    In this project we are raising several species of “extremophile” microbes at different growth rates under different kinds of element limitation (N, P, and Fe) in order to determine how their “elemental recipes” (in terms of C, N, P, Fe, and other metals) change with environmental conditions. These data will help us understand similar data to be obtained from microbes in natural ecosystems.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1
  • 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
  • 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 2a: Field Studies – Yellowstone National Park

    Field work and subsequent laboratory analysis is an integral part of following the elements. One of our field areas is the hot spring ecosystems of Yellowstone, which are dominated by microbes, and where reactions between water and rock generate diverse chemical compositions.
    These natural laboratories provide numerous opportunities to test our ideas about how microbes respond to different geochemical supplies of elements. Summer field work and lab work the rest of the year includes characterizing the natural systems, and controlled experiments on the effects of changing nutrient and metal concentrations (done so as to not impact the natural features!).

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 5.2 5.3 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 via field sampling of biological and chemical characteristics and a series of enclosure and whole-pond fertilization experiments.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2
  • Permafrost in Hawaii

    Microclimates are small areas where climate conditions differ from the surrounding area. This can lead to the occurrence of permafrost in otherwise ice-free areas. Although the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii is exceptionally dry, sporadic permafrost exists in cinder cones near the summit. Additionally, ice caves are known to exist on the flanks of Mauna Loa, Hawaii. The reasons for the persistence of the ice are inadequately understood. Theoretical models have been developed to illuminate microclimatic effects. The microclimates, in the craters and the ice caves, also serve as analogues for microclimates on Mars, where sporadic ice patches can be found in relatively warm regions.

  • 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