2011 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 6.1 Reports Reporting  |  SEP 2010 – AUG 2011

Project Reports

  • 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
  • AIRFrame Technical Infrastructure and Visualization Software Evaluation

    We have analyzed over four thousand astrobiology articles from the scientific press, published over ten years to search for clues about their underlying connections. This information can be used to build tools and technologies that guide scientists quickly across vast, interdisciplinary libraries towards the diverse works of most relevance to them.

    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
  • Advancing Methods for the Analyses of Organics Molecules in Sediments

    Eigenbrode’s astrobiological research focuses on understanding the formation and preservation of organic and isotopic sedimentary records of ancient Earth, Mars, and icy bodies. To this end, and as part of GCA’s Theme IV effort, Eigenbrode seeks to overcome sampling and analytical challenges associated with organic analyses of astrobiology relevant samples with modification and development of contamination tracking, sampling, and analytical methods (primarily GCMS) that improve the recovery of meaningful observations and provide protocol guidance for future astrobiological missions. Advances have been made in five sub-studies and manuscript writing is in progress. Studies include: 1 & 2. Advancing protocols for organic molecular studies of iron-oxide rich sediments and sediments laden with perchlorate, 3. Carbon Isotopic Records of the Neoarchean, 4. Solid-phase sorbtive extraction of organic molecules in glacial ice, and 5. Amino acid composition of glacial ice.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 4.1 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1
  • Project 1B: U-Th-Pb Geochronology and Fe Isotopes of the 3.4 Ga Marble Bar Chert Indicates Early Anoxygenic Photosynthesis

    The origin of the spectacular red jasper (hematite+chert) at Marble Bar, Australia, has been a subject of debate for decades. Previous work has argued that oxidation occurred at the time of deposition 3.5 b.y. ago, and that the mechanism of oxidation was free oxygen in the atmosphere. This in turn would indicate that oxygenic photosynthesis had evolved by 3.4 Ga. By measuring Fe isotopes in the jasper, we can show that oxidation was extremely limited, and U-Th-Pb isotope geochronology on the same samples shows that the jasper precipitated form U-poor ocean water. This in turn indicates that there was no free oxygen in seawater at the time of deposition of the jasper. This in turn suggests that the mechanism was more likely to have been an anaerobic process, such as anoxygenic photosynthetic Fe(II) oxidation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 6.1 7.1
  • Biosignatures in Relevant Microbial Ecosystems

    In this project, PSARC team members explore the isotope ratios, gene sequences, minerals, organic molecules, and other signatures of life in modern environments that have important similarities with early earth conditions, or with life that may be present elsewhere in the solar system and beyond. Many of these environments are “extreme” by human standards and/or have conditions that are at the limit for microbial life on Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 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
  • Atmospheric Oxygen and Complex Life

    The biosynthesis of sterols requires oxygen but only in vanishingly low concentrations. Oxygen could be used by algae to make sterols in the surface ocean and, yet, at the same time, it would not be in sufficient concentration to destroy the mass-independent sulfur isotope signal for atmospheric oxygenation.

    Large sulfur isotope fractionations have been observed in sulfate reducing bacteria grown in a 'starvation’ regime, much as most natural populations experience. This casts doubt on the hypothesis that the large sulfur isotope fractionations seen in the Neoproterozoic rock record herald an increase in atmospheric oxygen and the inception of a new form of oxidative sulfur cycling.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 6.1
  • Biomechanics of the Rangeomorph Fauna

    The oldest communities of fossil eukaryotes are found in the sedimentary rocks of Mistaken Point Newfoundland. These sediments were deposited in deep, slow-moving waters, at depths where light could not penetrate. Communities of fossil fronds preserved here reached up off the bottom, much like plants, but are thought to have lived by absorbing reduced compounds through their large surface area. In our work we show that growth off the seafloor provides an opportunity to reach higher flow velocity in this low flow environment. This exposure to flow breaks down diffusional limits, permitting more rapid uptake and growth. This opportunity is only available to larger-sized organisms, and this size advantage is exclusive to multicellular eucaryotes – not to competing bacteria with their smaller cell-size, and minimal multicellularity. Thus these communities and this advantage to multicellular form represents an important step in the evolution of complex multicellular life.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.2 5.2 6.1
  • Analogue Environment Deployments on the Big Island

    We are using the saddle region on the Big Island of Hawaii, in collaboration with NASA teams and the Canadian Space Agency in order to test technology related to sustainable living on the moon. My group will evaluate the utility of 3-D visualization in robotic navigation, in particular for the ex-ploration of lava tubes.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 4.1 4.3 6.1 6.2 7.1
  • 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 over geologic time. As part of our integrated plan, we will study geochemical, isotopic, and sedimentary signatures of life in order to understand the context in which these biosignatures formed.

    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
  • Project 5: Geological-Biological Interactions

    This project involves multiple researchers exploring life in extreme environments, the signature of life (chemical, isotopic and mineralogical), and the adaption of life. All together the many sub-topics of this project seek to inform us about where to search for life on other worlds and how to seek evidence that life once existed on other worlds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 5.1 6.1 6.2 7.1
  • Metabolic Networks From Single Cells to Ecosystems

    Members of the Segre’ group use systems biology approaches to study the complex network of metabolic reactions that allow microbial cells to survive and reproduce under varying environmental conditions. The resource allocation problem that underlies these fundamental processes changes dramatically when multiple cells can compete or cooperate with each other, for example through metabolic cross-feeding. Through mathematical models of microbial ecosystems and computer simulations of spatially structured cell populations, the Segre’ team aims at understanding the environmental conditions and evolutionary processes that favor the emergence of multicellular organization in living systems.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.1 5.2 6.1
  • Planetary Surface and Interior Models and SuperEarths

    We use computer models to simulate the evolution of the interior and the surface of real and hypothetical planets around other stars. Our goal is to work out what sorts of initial characteristics are most likely to contribute to making a planet habitable in the long run. Observations in our own Solar System show us that water and other essential materials are continuously consumed via weathering (and other processes) and must be replenished from the planet’s interior via volcanic activity to maintain a biosphere. The surface models we are developing will be used to predict how gases and other materials will be trapped through weathering over time. Our interior models are designed to predict how much and what sort of materials will come to a planet’s surface through volcanic activity throughout its history.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 5.2 6.1
  • Deep (Sediment-Buried Basement) Biosphere

    The ocean crust comprises the largest aquifer on earth. Deep sediment cover provides an environ-ment for a unique biosphere hosting microorganisms surviving under extreme conditions. Frac-tured rock provides abundant surfaces that can be colonized by diverse microbes and water-rock reactions promote chemical conditions that influence key geochemical cycles within the Earth’s crust and oceans. Team members participated in a 14-day research cruise to study the sediment-buried basement (basaltic crust) biosphere, to provide unprecedented and unique insight into the mobility and origin of microorganisms within this remote biosphere.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Molecular and Isotopic Investigations Across the Neoproterozoic

    We gathered new data on molecular and isotopic stratigraphic trends from Cryogenian and Ediacaran sequences from Canada, Oman and Mongolia. These continue to show that the biogeochemical carbon cycle was anomalous, and unlike any other period in Earth history, prior to the advent of complex animal life. While difficult to interpret in a robust way these data are reproducible, reflect real trends and are not the result of 'diagenetic alteration’ as some have proposed.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.2 5.2 6.1
  • 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
  • Neoproterozoic Carbon Cycle

    The rock record late Neoproterozoic (540-800 Ma) appears to exhibit strong
    perturbations to Earth’s carbon cycle. This project seeks an understanding
    of the mechanisms that drive such events and their biogeochemical significance.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.2 4.2 5.1 5.2 6.1
  • The Subglacial Biosphere – Insights Into Life-Sustaining Strategies in an Extraterrestrial Analog Environment

    Sub-ice environments are prevalant on Earth today and are likely to have been more prevalent the Earth’s past during episodes of significant glacial advances (e.g., snow-ball Earth). Numerous metabolic strategies have been hypothesized to sustain life in sub-ice environments. Common among these hypotheses is that they are all independent of photosynthesis, and instead rely on chemical energy. Recently, we demonstrated the presence of an active assemblage of methanogens in the subglacial environment of an Alpine glacier (Boyd et al., 2010). 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. During the course of this study, we identified other features that were suggestive of other active and potentially relevant metabolic strategies in the subglacial environment, such as nitrogen cycling. The goals of this project are 1) identifying a suite of biomarkers indicative of biological CH4 production 2). quantifying the flux of CH4 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 2.2 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 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

    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
  • Project 3C: Integration of Multiple Isotope Proxies to Study the Pre-GOE Oxygenation of the Earth

    The period 2.7 to 2.5 b.y. ago, the period leading you to the Great Oxidation Event (GOE), is becoming increasingly recognized as a time of major environmental change. A holistic understanding of the changes that occurred in microbial ecology, and their effects of the environment, are only possible by integrating multiple geochemical proxies. By simultaneously looking at C, O, S, Fe, Mo, and Sr isotopes, we develop a picture of extensive oxygenic photosynthesis, but approximate balance with reduced resevoirs such as reduced Fe and reduced volcanic gases, such that free oxygen did not yet become abundant on the planet. Although many workers have questioned a rise in oxygenic photosynthesis significantly before the GOE, these new data clearly indicate that this metabolism was widespread at least 400 m.y. before the GOE.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 5.3 6.1 7.1 7.2
  • Protists of the Neoproterozoic

    T. Bosak (MIT), S. Pruss (Smith College), F. Macdonald (Harvard U.) and D. Lahr (U. Sao Paolo) discovered fossils of microscopic eukaryotes in limestone and dolostone strata deposited between the two Neoproterozoic low-latitude glaciations (between ~ 716 and 635 million years ago). These fossils include amoeba-like organisms that incorporated mineral-rich particles from the environment into their shells, mineral-rich shells of the oldest putative foraminiferans, and thick flask-shaped organic envelopes of the first putative ciliates, representatives of a major group of modern eukaryotes. These fossils demonstrate a previously unrecognized record of body fossils during the ~ 70 million years between the two “Snowball Earth” episodes and document the increasing diversity of morphologically and compositionally modern eukaryotes before the rise of complex animals.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.2 6.1
  • Proxies for Ocean Anoxia

    Episodes of widespread anoxia in past oceans are known as “Ocean Anoxic Events”. The ecosystem consequences of these events are actively debated. In this project, we are examining the chemical and isotopic signatures of the photosynthetic pigment, chlorophyll, to understand changes in ecosystems and the nutrients that fueled them. The seasonal oxygen minimum zone (OMZ) offshore Chile is being used as a modern analog.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.2 5.3 6.1
  • Stoichiometry of Life – Task 1 – Laboratory Studies in Biological Stoichiometry

    This project component involves a diverse set of studies of various microorganisms with which we are trying to better understand how living things use chemical elements (nitrogen, phosphorus, iron, etc) and how they cope, in a physiological sense, with shortages of such elements. For example, how does the “elemental recipe of life” change when an organism is starved for phosphorus? Is this change similar for diverse species of microorganisms? Are the changes the same if the organism is limited by a different key nutrient? Furthermore, how does an organism shift its patterns of gene expression when it is starved by various nutrients? This will help in interpreting studies of gene expression in natural environments. At an even more profound level: can an organism substitute an element that is similar to the one that is limiting, as in the case of arsenic for phosphorus?

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

    The Life Modules team at VPL works on developing models of how biological processes – such as photosynthesis, breathing, and decay of organic materials – work on a planetary scale. When this is combined with the work of the atmospheric and planetary modeling teams, we are able simulate how these processes impact the atmosphere and climate of a planet. This information, then, helps us understand how might be able to detect whether or not a planet has life by looking at its atmosphere and surface. The Life Modules team has engaged in previous work coupling early Earth biogeochemistry and 1D models in the VPL’s suite of planetary models. Current work now focuses on biosphere models that simulate geographic distributions of life adapted to different climate zones and capable of coupling 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
  • Timescales of Events in the Evolution and Maintenance of Complex Life

    For the first time, a precise and detailed chronology has been developed for numerous factors associated with the great mass extinction that ended to Paleozoic Era

  • Understanding Past Earth Environments

    For much of the history Earth, life on the planet existed in an environment dramatically different than that of modern-day Earth. Thus, the ancient Earth represents a planet with a biosphere that is both dramatically different than the one in which we live and is accessible to detailed study. As such, is serves as a model for what types of biospheres we may find on other planets. A particular focus of our work was on the “Early Earth” (formation through to about 500 million years ago), a timeframe poorly represented in the geological and fossil records but comprises the majority of Earth’s history. We have studied the composition of the ancient atmosphere, modeled the effects of clouds on such a planet, studied the sulfur, oxygen and nitrogen cycles, and the atmospheric formation of molecules that were likely important to the origins of life on Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 4.2 5.1 5.2 6.1
  • Stoichiometry of Life, Task 2b: Field Studies – Cuatro Cienegas

    Cuatro Cienegas is a unique biological preserve in México (state of Coahuila) 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
  • Stoichiometry of Life – Task 2c – Biological Soil Crusts: Metal Use and Acquisition

    Desert biological soil crusts (BSCs) are a complex consortia of microorganisms including cyanobacteria, algae, and fungi. BSCs are the primary colonizers of desert soils, supplying both carbon and nitrogen to these arid-land ecosystems. As such, they may represent an analog for soil development on the early Earth. BSCs occupy an extremely nutrient-poor niche, and meet their nutrient and metal requirements by manipulating their surroundings via the production of metal-binding ligands called siderophores. The soil crust’s metabolism affects the chemical composition of soil porewaters and soil solid phases; these alterations to soil metal contents may represent a biosignature for biological soil crusts that can be preserved over long time scales.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1
  • Stoichiometry of Life, Task 4: Biogeochemical Impacts on Planetary Atmospheres

    Oxygenation of Earth’s early atmosphere must have involved an efficient mode of carbon burial. In the modern ocean, carbon export of primary production is dominated by fecal pellets and aggregates produced by the animal grazer community. But during most of Earth history the oceans were dominated by unicellular, bacteria-like organisms (prokaryotes) causing a substantially altered biogeochemistry. In this task we experiment with the marine cyanobacterium Synechococcus sp. as a model organism and test its aggregation and sinking speed as a function of nutrient (nitrogen, phosphorus, iron) limitation. We have found so far that aggregation and sinking of these minute cyanobacteria is influenced by the concentration of nutrients in the growth medium.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.2 6.1 7.2