2013 Annual Science Report

NASA Ames Research Center Reporting  |  SEP 2012 – AUG 2013

Executive Summary

The Ames Team of the NAI investigates the physical, chemical and biological processes that combined to create early habitable environments. We trace the cosmic evolution of organic molecules from the interstellar medium, through protoplanetary disks and planetesimals, and ultimately to potentially habitable planets. We characterize the diversity of planetary systems that might emerge from protoplanetary disks. We identify diverse scenarios for the origins and early evolution of catalytic functionality and metabolic reaction networks. We develop and test a methodology for assessing quantitatively the habitability of early planetary environments – particularly Mars – via capabilities that could be deployed in situ. Our ongoing active involvement in multiple NASA missions provides context, incentives and collaborative opportunities for our research and education and public outreach programs. Please visit www.amesteam.arc.nasa.gov.

Cosmic distribution of chemical complexity. This project explores the connections between chemistry in space and the origins ... Continue reading.

Field Sites
17 Institutions
4 Project Reports
40 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. Specifically, we investigate whether protein functionality can arise from an inventory of polypeptides that might have naturally existed in habitable environments; we attempt to demonstrate multiple origins of a single enzymatic function; we investigate how primordial proteins could evolve through the diversification of their structure and functions; and we determine how simple proteins could carry out seemingly complex functions.

  • Cosmic Distribution of Chemical Complexity

    This project explores the connections between chemistry in space and the origin of life. It is comprised of three tightly interwoven tasks. We track the formation and evolution of chemical complexity in space starting with simple carbon-rich molecules such as formaldehyde and acetylene. We then move on to more complex species including amino acids, nucleic acids and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. The work focuses on carbon-rich species that are interesting from a biogenic perspective and on understanding their possible roles in the origin of life on habitable worlds. We do this by measuring the spectra and chemistry of analog materials in the laboratory, by remote sensing with small spacecraft, and by analysis of extraterrestrial samples returned by spacecraft or that fall to Earth as meteorites. We then use these results to interpret astronomical observations made with ground-based and orbiting telescopes.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 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 the evolution of complex habitable environments. The planet formation process begins with fragmentation of large molecular clouds into flattened 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 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 2.2 3.1 4.1 4.3
  • Mineralogical Traces of Early Habitable Environments

    The goal of our work is to understand how habitability (potential to support life) varies across a range of physical and chemical parameters, in order to support a long term goal of characterizing habitability of environments on Mars.
    The project consists of two main components:
    1. We are examining the interplay between physicochemical environment and associated microbial communities in a subsurface environment dominated by serpentinization (a reaction involving water and crustal rocks, which indicated by surface mineralogy to have occurred on ancient Mars).
    2. We are working to understand how mineral assemblages can serve as a lasting record of prior environmental conditions, and therefore as indicators of prior habitability. This component directly supports the interpretation of mineralogy data obtained by the CheMin instrument on the Mars Science Laboratory.