1. NAI 2015 Director’s Discretionary Fund (DDF) Selections

    The NASA Astrobiology Institute is pleased to announce nine selections for the Director’s Discretionary Fund for 2015. The proposals were chosen based on responsiveness to the scientific and programmatic priorities for the year: integrating the research of and realizing synergies among the current NAI teams, support for early career investigators, and collaboration with our international partners.

    Catalytic Diversity at the Emergence of Metabolism: Hydrothermal Carbon Dioxide Reduction on Fe/Ni-Sulfide Catalysts
    Lead Investigator: Laura Barge (JPL Icy Worlds Team)
    Co-Investigators: Pablo Sobron (SETI Institute Team), Michael Russell (JPL Icy Worlds Team), Yuichiro Ueno (Earth-Life Science Institute), Shawn McGlynn (Tokyo Metropolitan University)

    This proposal aims to simulate and quantify the emergence of catalyst diversity for carbon fixation in prebiotic alkaline hydrothermal vents. The objectives are to 1) test the reduction of CO2 on hydrothermal minerals at 70°C; 2) test addition of nickel—a significant component for CO2 reduction and metabolism; and 3) test the effectiveness of adding organics to investigate their ability to affect catalyst diversity and functionality. This proposal strongly supports the serpentinization synergy theme by integrating the research of JPL Icy Worlds and SETI Institute Fingerprints of Life NAI teams; the new NAI Biosignature Detection and Serpentinization Working Groups; NAI’s international partner organization the Japan Astrobiology Consortium through the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo, Japan; and the new ELSI Origins Network. The proposal also supports two early career Co-Investigators.

    Low Pressure Serpentinization Reactions on Mars
    Lead Investigator: Adrian Brown (SETI Institute Team)
    Co-Investigators: Alexis Templeton, Lisa Mayhew (University of Colorado Boulder, Rock-Powered Life Team), Michael Russell (JPL Icy Worlds Team)

    This proposal will simulate the formation of talc-carbonate assemblages on Mars, similar to deposits detected at Nili Fossae. The presence of talc in association with carbonate is particularly suggestive of serpentinization with a medium to high degree of CO2 in the reacting fluid. The study will focus on tantalizing clues that talc and carbonate may form together in the shallow (10s of meters) Martian crust. This type of system would have high astrobiological potential and be relatively accessible to in situ investigation. This project creates a bridge between the Serpentinizing Systems Working Group and the Biosignature Detection Working Group. The collaboration between three NAI teams has mission relevance and forges a new collaboration between synergy working groups. The proposal supports a post-doc who will work with Dr. Templeton.

    Biosignature Detection with the Raman Instrument on ExoMars: Enhancing Mission Readiness Through Analyses of Analogue and Synthetic Samples
    Lead Investigator: Alfonso Davila (SETI Institute Team)
    Co-investigators: Pablo Sobrón (SETI Institute Team), Mary Beth Wilhelm (Georgia Tech)
    Collaborators: Fernando Rull Pérez and Victor Parro García (Centro de Astrobiologia), Linda Jahnke (NASA Ames), James Wray (Georgia Tech)

    This proposal will critically evaluate the capability of the ExoMars Raman Laser Spectrometer (RLS) to detect organic compounds and biomarkers (lipids and hydrocarbons) in biologically lean Mars analogue samples, by 1) building a Raman spectral library of hydrocarbons and lipid biomarkers using analytical standards and 2) analyzing soil samples from the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert. The proposal strengthens research ties between the NAI SETI Institute team and NAI’s international partner the Centro de Astrobioloía (CAB) of Madrid, Spain. This new NAI DDF project provides a unique opportunity to connect NAI SETI Institute team members with flight instrument teams and together derive knowledge that can be used for the search for life on Mars for all life-seeking missions, particularly ExoMars and Mars 2020. The proposal supports a graduate student at Georgia Tech.

    Integrating the Geochemical and Genomic History of the Rise of Oxygen on Earth
    Lead Investigator: Greg Fournier (MIT Team)
    Co-investigator: Tim Lyons (NAI Alternative Earths Team, University of California Riverside)

    The work proposed will investigate evidence for the history of oxygen within the genes and genomes of organismal lineages that persisted through the Great Oxygenation event and the Neoproterozoic event. The investigators propose to study the rate and pattern of the acquisition and loss of genes coding for oxygen-associated enzymes in diverse microbial groups over time, as a proxy for changing oxygen levels on geological timescales. This bioinformatics approach will strongly complement current studies of the rise of oxygen being conducted by the NAI Alternative Earths Team at UC Riverside by providing independent support for specific hypotheses, as well as resolving several currently ambiguous narratives. The project brings together the Evolution of Complex Life Synergy Group with Co-I Lyons and the UC Riverside NAI team and provides support for an early career researcher.

    Investigating the Geobiology of Pilot Valley Basin, Utah: A Mars Analog Study of a Groundwater-dominated Paleolake Basin
    Lead Investigator: Kennda Lynch (University of Montana Team, Colorado School of Mines)
    Co-investigators: Frank Rosenzwieg (University of Montana Team), James Wray (SETI Institute Team, Georgia Tech), John Spear (University of Colorado Boulder Team, Colorado School of Mines), Briony Horgan (Purdue University), Jennifer Hanley (Lowell Observatory), Jennifer Biddle (University of Delaware), Kevin Rey (Brigham Young University) Andrew Jackson (Texas Tech)

    This proposal will develop a comprehensive understanding of transitional habitable environments through a collection of studies that build on previous work, in-depth geochemical and biological analysis of collected samples, and characterization of Visible Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (VNIR) spectra from simulated mixed mineral matrices. This work will create a synergy between the SETI Institute, University of Montana, and CU-Boulder astrobiology teams. It will also bring new investigators from Purdue, Lowell Observatory, and BYU into the astrobiology community. The lead investigator, Dr. Lynch, is a postdoctoral researcher.

    Determining the Composition of Amphiphiles in the Organic Residues Produced from the UV Irradiation of Astrophysical Ices
    Lead Investigator: Michel Nuevo (NASA Ames Team, Bay Area Environmental Research Institute)
    Co-investigators: Scott Sandford (NASA Ames Team), Roger Summons (MIT Team)

    Self-assembling vesicles spontaneously form when the organic fraction of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites are dissolved. Laboratory simulations have demonstrated that all the organics found in meteorites can be formed from the ultraviolet irradiation of ice mixtures. This proposal aims to carry out the first systematic analysis of laboratory ice irradiation organic residues to determine the nature and composition of the vesicle-forming amphiphilic compounds present. The results will be discussed in the context of the origin of life. This foundational proposal brings together two NAI teams at Ames and MIT, with likely extension to the Goddard team, and fosters a unique synergy within the Planetary Inventory of Organics and Water and the Origin of Life theme.

    Field Campaign: Spectropolarimetry of Primitive Phototrophs as Global Surface Biosignatures
    Lead Investigator: Mary “Niki” Parenteau (VPL Team, SETI Institute)
    Co-Investigators: William Sparks (VPL Team, Space Telescope Science Institute), Charles Telesco (University of Florida), Thomas Germer (National Institute of Standards and Technology), C.H.L. Lucas Patty (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), Frank Robb (University of Maryland), Victoria Meadows (VPL Team, University of Washington)

    This proposal seeks to characterize surface biosignatures associated with anoxygenic phototrophs and cyanobacteria. Circular polarization spectra of environmental samples of microbial mats containing cyanobacteria and anoxygenic phototrophs will be measured in a one-week field campaign in Yellowstone National Park using a newly developed CubeSat-scale spectropolarimeter. This proposal is a collaboration between the NAI VPL team and a Dutch group, including an early career scientist. The project is relevant to the Habitable Planetary States, Evolution of Microbial Life, and Astronomical Biosignatures synergy theme. In addition, use of flight relevant instrumentation, including a newly developed spectropolarimeter, strengthens the project. The co-investigators include VPL and SETI team members along with many co-Is not formerly associated with the NASA astrobiology community, which may lead to new institutional involvements.

    Did the Proterozoic Earth have remotely detectable O3, CH4 and N2O? Implications for Terrestrial Exoplanet Analogs and the Search for Life Outside the Solar System
    Lead Investigator: Edward Schwieterman (VPL Team, University of Washington)
    Co-investigators: Victoria Meadows (VPL Team, University of Washington), Timothy Lyons (Alternative Earths Team, University of California Riverside), Shawn Domagal-Goldman (VPL Team, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), Noah Planavsky (Alternative Earths Team, Yale), Chris Reinhard, (Alternative Earths Team, Georgia Tech), Giada Arney (VPL Team, University of Washington), Tyler Robinson (VPL Team, University of California Santa Cruz)

    Using proven coupled climate-photochemical models to create a small suite of standard, hypothetical chemical profiles for the Proterozoic Earth (0.8-2.5 Ga), this proposal intends to evaluate the detectability of the biogenic gases CH4, N2O, and O2/O3 during that eon. The simultaneous detection of these gases would have signaled a strong disequilibrium biosignature to a distant observer. The research conducted under this proposal will allow us to apply knowledge of the ancient Earth to the study of exoplanets, and provide a foundation for further collaboration between the Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) and Alternative Earths NAI teams. The proposal provides a strong foundation for the Habitable Planetary States, the Evolution of Microbial Life, and their Astronomical Biosignatures synergy theme. This work will contribute to the training of an early career astrobiologist by funding a graduate student/transitioning postdoctoral scientist who will receive interdisciplinary training at the nexus between two NAI teams.

    Probing the Isotope Systematics of Low-Temperature Serpentinites
    Lead Investigator: Alexis Templeton (Rock-Powered Life Team, University of Colorado Boulder)
    Co-Investigators: Eric Ellison and Lisa Mayhew (Rock-Powered Life Team), Clark Johnson and John Valley (Wisconsin Astrobiology Research Consortium Team)

    This proposal will: 1) develop standards for microanalysis of δ18O in serpentine and brucite minerals formed in serpentinizing reactions under different temperature/fluid regimes, and 2) carry out initial isotopic exchange experiments to gain mechanistic insight into the formation of iron‐bearing brucite and serpentine through isotopic tracers of Mg, Fe, Si, and O. This is a foundational proposal in its introduction of isotopic techniques to the study of the biogeology of serpentinizing systems. The outcome will provide a framework for cross-team investigations in the Serpentinizing Systems Synergy group with implications for other NAI teams and projects. The proposal funds an early career scientist.

    Source: [NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI)]