2015 Annual Science Report

Reporting  |  JAN 2015 – DEC 2015

Carl Pilcher
NAI Interim Director: Carl Pilcher
Letter from the Director: 2015 NAI Annual Science Report

We are very pleased to publish the NAI 2015 Annual Report covering the period January 1 to December 31, 2015. As readers of these letters likely know, one of NAI’s most central success criteria is the Institute being more than the sum of its parts. This particularly applies to scientific research, where our goal is to bring our individual research teams together to realize synergies and achieve scientific outcomes that otherwise would not have occurred. This has been a particular focus since the most recently selected (CAN-7) teams came on board at the beginning of 2015. (See the Director’s Letter introducing these teams in the 2014 Annual Report.)

At the first meeting of the CAN-7 and continuing (CAN-6) Principal Investigators, several areas of overlapping interests and capabilities immediately became apparent. This led to the development of Synergy Themes which are being embodied in new cross-team collaborations and serving to guide NAI investments.

The six current Synergy Themes are:

  • Biosignature Detection
  • Evolution of Complex Life
  • GeoBioCell Applications
  • Planetary Inventory of Organics and Water, and the Origin of Life
  • Serpentinizing Systems
  • Habitable Planetary States, the Evolution of Microbial Life, and their Astronomical Biosignatures

As an example of how these Synergy Themes are leading to new and innovative scientific outcomes, a member of the Foundations of Complex Life team (MIT) was funded through a Director’s Discretionary Fund (DDF) award to work with the University of California at Riverside (UCR) team that is studying how Earth has remained persistently habitable over most of its dynamic history. The MIT team member, a genomics expert, will work with geochemists on the UCR team to correlate the acquisition and loss of genes coding for oxygen-associated enzymes in diverse microbial groups with geochemical evidence for the rise and fall of planetary oxygen levels on geological timescales.

Another example links astrochemists on the Ames and Goddard teams with the geobiologists of the MIT Complex Life team. Ames and Goddard astrochemists have been instrumental in showing that laboratory interstellar ice irradiation simulations produce a host of astrobiologically interesting compounds including amino acids, sugars, nucleobases, and amphiphiles. However, there has been little detailed characterization of some of these compounds, particularly the amphiphiles. Since amphiphiles spontaneously form vesicles when dissolved in water, they may have played an important role in the development of the first cells. The MIT team has a great deal of expertise and instrumentation for the analysis of amphiphiles. They will apply this capability to ice irradiation samples provided by the Ames team, and all three teams will collaborate on interpreting the results in the context of both the simulations and meteorites.

A third example links the UCR team to the Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) team at the University of Washington (UW). The UW team studies how we might identify habitable or inhabited worlds around other stars. The UCR team examines Earth’s many different biogeochemical states over geological time. Although Earth’s history has much to inform our understanding of potential characteristics of rocky exoplanets, the astronomically focused exoplanet community has not interacted closely with the geochemistry community that studies Earth’s history…until now.

As already mentioned, the Synergy Themes are guiding investments, particularly through the NAI DDF and the Astrobiology element of the NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP). In the 2015 DDF competition, nine awards totaling over $350K were made to investigators, many of them in the early stages of their careers, for studies related to the Synergy Themes and astrobiology spaceflight missions. Four of the six 2015 Astrobiology NPP awards were also made to individuals who will work with NAI teams, mostly in Synergy Theme areas of research.

The Synergy Themes also contribute to guiding NAI international partnerships. In 2015 the NAI added its fourteenth international partner, the Japan AstroBiology Consortium (JABC). The JABC brings together several organizations that are contributing to a dynamic and exciting astrobiology community in Japan including the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) which includes the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NOAO) and the Astrobiology Center (ABC). Several NAI investigators, including early career scientists, are working actively on projects with Japanese collaborators in Synergy Theme areas.

In pursuit of its goal to provide leadership for astrobiology spaceflight missions, the NAI organized, at the request of the NASA Headquarters Planetary Science Division, a Workshop on the Potential for Finding Life in a Europa Plume. Held at Ames Research Center on February 18, 2015, the workshop provided first an overview of Europa mission planning and the state of plume observations and models, and then a number of presentations and posters on specific instrument and life detection concepts. More than 160 people participated including several members of the press, leading to numerous articles in the media (e.g., National Geographic, Space.com).

The past year saw Prof. Nathaniel Comfort of the Institute of the History of Medicine at The Johns Hopkins University begin his tenure as the third Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology. Prof. Comfort is using the Library’s collections to examine the impact of the genomic revolution on origin-of-life research.

In the past year NAI also continued its many activities to build and broaden the astrobiology community and support early career investigators. As discussed in more detail in the NAI Central section of this report, these activities included (i) support for the 2015 Astrobiology Graduate Student Conference (AbGradCon) at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the associated Research Focus Group Workshop where graduate students develop their proposal writing skills; (ii) the selection of nine students and early career investigators to do astrobiology field work through the Lewis and Clark Fund in partnership with the American Philosophical Society; and (iii) the selection of two faculty members from minority serving institutions—Dr. Yassin Jeilani of Spelman College and Dr. Erik Melchiorre of Cal State San Bernadino—to receive sabbatical support through the Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) Program.

Finally, we congratulate NAI researchers who have been recognized with major awards during the past year. MIT team member Sam Bowring and NASA Ames team member Martin Head-Gordon of UC Berkeley were elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Derek Briggs, also of the MIT team, has been named the 2015 Paleontological Society Medalist. VPL researcher Yuk Yung was awarded the American Astronomical Society (AAS) Division of Planetary Sciences (DPS) Gerard P. Kuiper prize honoring his life-time contributions to the field of planetary science. NASA Goddard researcher Geronimo Villanueva was awarded the AAS DPS Harold C. Urey Prize for contributions by an early career scientist. Tim Lyons and Ariel Anbar (UCR team) were named Geochemistry Fellows by the Geochemical Society and the European Association of Geochemistry. And Chris Reinhard, an institutional leader of the UCR team on the faculty of Georgia Tech, has been named a 2015 Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow.

Please explore this Annual Report and the NAI website for more details and the latest news. We welcome your feedback on how the NAI can continue serving the astrobiology community.

Carl Pilcher, Interim Director
May 2016