1. NAI Newsletter 2013-11-26

    November 26, 2013 Issue





    New Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology Begins Term

    Please join us in welcoming science historian Steven J. Dick as he begins his term November 1 as the second Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology in the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress. He will be in residence for one year.

    A well-known astronomer and author, Dick was the chair in aerospace history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum and served as the chief historian for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) from 2003 to 2009.

    Dick will examine the historical background of astrobiology, and will work both individually and with other scholars to analyze humanistic issues surrounding the discovery of life in the universe and optimal approaches to studying the impact of such a discovery. His research will include studies in the Library’s extensive Manuscript Division collections of notable scientists, including the recently processed papers of Carl Sagan.

    “This study is focused on the societal impact of the discovery of life in the universe,” Dick said. “It is a two-tiered research strategy: to examine in detail to what extent history may be useful to the problem, and to determine systematically the critical issues and optimal approaches to illuminating the problem.”

    Dick’s publications include “Discovery and Classification in Astronomy: Controversy and Consensus” (2013), “Many Worlds” (2000), “The Biological Universe: The Twentieth Century Extraterrestrial Life Debate and the Limits of Science” (1999) and “The Living Universe: NASA and the Development of Astrobiology,” co-authored with James E. Strick (2005).

    The astrobiology chair at the Kluge Center is the result of collaboration between the NASA Astrobiology Program and the Library of Congress and is named for Baruch “Barry” Blumberg, the late Kluge Center Scholars Council member, Nobel Laureate and founding director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Funded by NASA, and executed by the Kluge Center in consultation with the NASA Astrobiology Institute, the chair-holder conducts research at the intersection of the science of astrobiology and its humanistic and societal implications. One senior researcher is appointed annually to be in residence at The John W. Kluge Center, to make use of the Library of Congress collections in exploration of these questions, and convene related programs that focus on astrobiology’s role in culture and society.

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    Astrobiology at AGU

    On December 9 – 12, join more than 24,000 Earth and space scientists, educators and students at the American Geophysical Union’s 46th annual Fall Meeting in San Francisco, CA. If you cannot make it to San Francisco this year, you can take advantage of the Fall Meeting Virtual Options. Fall Meeting Virtual Options will feature live streams and recordings of more than 100 named lectures and oral sessions, on-site poster presentations by remote presenters-allowing select non-attendees to showcase their work, ePosters, and tools and resources to facilitate scientific discourse around the world.

    Here are a few sessions that you don’t want to miss.

    Dave DesMarais, Danny Glavin, Chris McKay and Everett Shock:
    P033 Tracking Down Life – Star Biosignatures, Biomarker Systems or the Ensemble Cast?

    Cynthia Phillips, Franck Marchis, and Nathalie Cabrol:
    P022: Rapid Environmental Change and the Fate of Planetary Habitability

    Britney Schmidt, Alyssa Rhoden, Cynthia Phillips, Paul Hayne:
    P005: Destination: Europa

    Eric Boyd, Everett Shock
    B073: Windows into the Deep Subsurface Biosphere: Coupled Geochemical and Biological Investigations of Terrestrial Hot Spring Ecosystems

    Chris McKay, Carolyn Porco
    P008: Enceladus: Little Moon, Big Possibilities

    Additionally, you can download a list here of about 50 relevant astrobiology sessions or view the entire meeting program here

    For all the meeting information visit: https://fallmeeting.agu.org/2013/

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    NAI Welcomes New Director of Operations, Michael Gaunce

    Please welcome Mike Gaunce as the Associate Director for Operations for the NAI. He is responsible for the day-to-day technical and administrative management of the institute, for coordinating the overall personnel, activities, and the schedule of NAI operations. This includes the NAI web sites, communication and collaborative technology infrastructure, and the education and public outreach activities.

    Prior to coming to the NAI, Mike worked in the Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD) Airspace Systems Program, supporting air traffic management research activities conducted at Ames. He has extensive project management and system engineering experience, and has led several Earth science airborne field campaigns, including deployments to Svalbard, Chile, Costa Rica, Alaska, Mexico, Panama, and the Cape Verde Islands. In the past, he has also supported science mission and launch operations for the Aquarius/SAC-D satellite, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Space Shuttle.

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    UW Seminar: Ammonia Oxidizing Archaea Survival Mechanisms in Low-Nutrient Environments

    Presenter: Drew Gorman-Lewis, University of Washington
    When: December 3, 2013 3PM PST

    The ammonia-oxidizing archaeon (AOA) Nitrosopumilus maritimus strain SCM1 (N. maritimus strain SCM1), a representative of the Thaumarchaeota archaeal phylum, can sustain high specific rates of ammonia-oxidation at ammonia concentrations too low to sustain metabolism by ammonia-oxidizing bacteria (AOB). One structural and biochemical difference between N. maritimus and AOB that might be related to the adaptation of N. maritimus to low nutrient conditions is the cell surface. A proteinaceous surface layer (S-layer) comprises the outermost boundary of the N. maritimus cell envelope, as opposed to the lipopolysaccharide coat of Gram-negative AOB. In this work, we characterized the surface of two archaea having an S-layer with that of four-representative AOB with chemical techniques to evaluate differences in surface reactivities. Since these alternative boundary layers mediate interaction with the local external environment, these data provide the basis for further comparisons of surface reactivity toward essential nutrients.

    For more information go to: https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/seminars/other-seminar-series/university-of-washington-seminars/2013/12/03/ammonia-oxidizing-archaea-survival-mechanisms-in-low-nutrient-environments/

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    Kepler Ushers in a New Era of Astronomy

    New data from Kepler show an increase in the number of Earth-sized planets discovered. New data from Kepler show an increase in the number of Earth-sized planets discovered.

    Scientists from around the world gathered at NASA’s Ames Research Center on Nov. 4 – 8 for the second Kepler Science Conference to discuss the latest findings resulting from the analysis of Kepler Space Telescope data.

    Included in these findings is the discovery of 833 new candidate planets. Ten of these candidates are less than twice the size of Earth and orbit in their star’s habitable zone, which is defined as the range of distance from a star where the surface temperature of an orbiting planet may be suitable for liquid water.

    At this conference two years ago, the Kepler team announced its first confirmed habitable zone planet, Kepler-22b. Since then, four more habitable zone candidates have been confirmed, including two in a single system.

    New Kepler data analysis and research also show that most stars in our galaxy have at least one planet. This suggests that the majority of stars in the night sky may be home to planetary systems, perhaps some like our solar system.

    “The impact of the Kepler mission results on exoplanet research and stellar astrophysics is illustrated by the attendance of nearly 400 scientists from 30 different countries at the Kepler Science Conference,” said William Borucki, Kepler science principal investigator at Ames. “We gather to celebrate and expand our collective success at the opening of a new era of astronomy.”

    From the first three years of Kepler data, more than 3,500 potential worlds have emerged. Since the last update in January, the number of planet candidates identified by Kepler increased by 29 percent and now totals 3,538. Analysis led by Jason Rowe, research scientist at the SETI Institute, determined that the largest increase of 78 percent was found in the category of Earth-sized planets, based on observations conducted from May 2009 to March 2012. Rowe’s findings support the observed trend that smaller planets are more common.

    An independent statistical analysis of nearly all four years of Kepler data suggests that one in five stars like the sun is home to a planet up to twice the size of Earth, orbiting in a temperate environment. A research team led by Erik Petigura, doctoral candidate at University of California, Berkeley, used publicly accessible data from Kepler to derive this result.

    Kepler data also fueled another field of astronomy dubbed asteroseismology — the study of the interior of stars. Scientists examine sound waves generated by the boiling motion beneath the surface of the star. They probe the interior structure of a star just as geologists use seismic waves generated by earthquakes to probe the interior structure of Earth.

    “Stars are the building blocks of the galaxy, driving its evolution and providing safe harbors for planets. To study the stars, one truly explores the galaxy and our place within it,” said William Chaplin, professor for astrophysics at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. “Kepler has revolutionized asteroseismology by giving us observations of unprecedented quality, duration and continuity for thousands of stars. These are data we could only have dreamt of a few years ago.”

    Kepler’s mission is to determine what percentage of stars like the sun harbor small planets the approximate size and temperature of Earth. For four years, the space telescope simultaneously and continuously monitors the brightness of more than 150,000 stars, recording a measurement every 30 minutes. More than a year of the collected data remains to be fully reviewed and analyzed.

    Ames is responsible for the Kepler mission concept, ground system development, mission operations, and science data analysis. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., managed Kepler mission development. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colo., developed the Kepler flight system and supports mission operations with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore archives, hosts and distributes Kepler science data. Kepler is NASA’s 10th Discovery Mission and was funded by the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

    For more information about the second Kepler Science Conference, visit:

    For more information about the Kepler mission and to view the digital press kit, visit: “http://www.nasa.gov/kepler”: http://www.nasa.gov/kepler

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    New Astrobiology Exhibit at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center

    Some of the exhibit panels Some of the exhibit panels

    Join us in congratulating the Goddard Center for Astrobiology on their new “Astrobiology Walk” which is installed at the Visitor Center at NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, MD.

    The ribbon-cutting ceremony took place on October 29, 2013, headlined by Goddard Center Director Chris Scolese, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology at NASA Mary Voytek, and Mike Mumma, Director of the Goddard Center for Astrobiology and an NAI Principal Investigator.

    The ribbon is about to be cut! L-R: Mike Mumma, Mary Voytek, Chris Scolese The ribbon is about to be cut! L-R: Mike Mumma, Mary Voytek, Chris Scolese

    As each station on the Walk was unveiled, scientist-docents were on hand to explain the science to visitors.

    If you’re planning to be in the area, make sure to visit!

    The Astrobiology Walk The Astrobiology Walk

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    The Habitability of Icy Worlds Workshop

    A Workshop on the Habitability of Icy Worlds will be held February 5–7, 2014, in Pasadena, CA. The objective of this workshop is to focus on the astrobiological potential of icy worlds in the outer solar system – including Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan, and beyond – with discussion on future research directions and spacecraft missions that can best assess that potential. The agenda for the workshop will be organized around thematic sessions that address the potential habitability of the unique planetary environments of the outer solar system. Presentations on research involving terrestrial analogs for icy world environments are also encouraged.

    For all the workshop information visit: http://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/icyworlds2014/

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    Go MAVEN!

    Taking Flight at Cape Canaveral The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft launches from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 41, Monday, Nov. 18, 2013, Cape Canaveral, Florida. NASA’s Mars-bound spacecraft, the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN, or MAVEN, is the first spacecraft devoted to exploring and understanding the Martian upper atmosphere.

    Join us in congratulating the MAVEN team on a successful launch!

    NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission began with a smooth countdown and flawless launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station’s Space Launch Complex 41. The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying the 5,400-pound spacecraft lifted off at 1:28 p.m. EST, the mission’s first opportunity. MAVEN’s solar arrays deployed and are producing power.

    “We’re currently about 14,000 miles away from Earth and heading out to the Red Planet right now,” said MAVEN Project Manager David Mitchell of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

    MAVEN Principal Investigator Bruce Jakosky joined Mitchell in praising the mission team for its drive and commitment. NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Md., manages the project and provided two of the science instruments for the mission. Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft and is responsible for mission operations. The University of California at Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory provided science instruments for the mission. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., provides navigation support, Deep Space Network support, and Electra telecommunications relay hardware and operations. Jakosky is with the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

    “We’ve managed to work together as a team in a way I never would have imagined possible,” Jakosky said. He added that while the launch is a big milestone, MAVEN must get to Mars and complete a check-out period before it can finally begin collecting science data. It will take the spacecraft 10 months to reach the Red Planet, with arrival scheduled for Sept. 22, 2014.

    “Safe travels, MAVEN,” Mitchell said. “We’re with you all the way.”

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    Search for Life Beyond the Solar System

    Date: March 17 – 21, 2014
    Location: Tucson, Arizona

    Abstract Submission Deadline: December 6, 2013

    The goal of this meeting is to help the international astronomical community toward the long-term goal of finding life beyond the solar system by bringing together the communities working on the observations and modeling of extrasolar planets, the development of exoplanet-focused instrumentation, biosignatures suitable for remote sensing, and the limits of life on Earth.

    For all the meeting information visit: www.ebi2014.org

    An independently organized 3-day astrobiology school will precede the conference. The school will provide an introduction to graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to the multiple disciplines and concepts the conference builds upon. The school will be held at the University of Arizona’s unique Biosphere 2 facility and lectures will be given by some of the invited speakers and University of Arizona faculty. The school, including accommodation and food, will be free for 25 competitively selected participants of the EBI2014 conference. The Dean of the Astrobiology School is Dr Rory Barnes (University of Washington). Instructors of the school include Rory Barnes, John Baross, Olivier Guyon, and George Ricker.

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    Origins 2014

    The 2nd joint international conference of ISSOL and Bioastronomy will be held in Nara Japan, July 6-11, 2014.
    Abstract Submission Deadline: February 21, 2014
    Early Registration Deadline: January 31, 2014

    This conference will provide an opportunity for chemists, biologists, geologists, astronomers, planetary scientists, and those from other research fields to meet and discuss mutual research interests for addressing questions of the origin and evolution of life on this planet and elsewhere in the Universe.
    For all the conference information visit: http://www.origin-life.gr.jp/origins2014/index.html

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    Dining on Methane in the Cold, Dark Sea

    The image to the left shows Jennifer Glass working in a chamber where she can control the oxygen levels to mimic the deep sea environment. On the right is an example of marine gas hydrates on the sea The image to the left shows Jennifer Glass working in a chamber where she can control the oxygen levels to mimic the deep sea environment. On the right is an example of marine gas hydrates on the sea floor. Credit: Rob Felt (left image); US Department of Energy (right image)

    Astrobiologists supported in part by the NASA Astrobiology Institute have performed a detailed analysis of the biochemistry that helps microorganisms thrive in extremely cold environments around methane seeps on the ocean floor.

    The study was led by Jennifer Glass at Georgia Tech, and reveals previously unknown details about how two symbiotic microbes (one bacteria and one archaea) ‘eat’ methane trapped in methane hydrate crystals deep below the ocean. The process centers around a unique enzyme that uses the rare trace metal tungsten. This is the first time that organisms have been found to use tungsten in such a low temperature environment.

    Methane hydrate crystals are formed in the low temperatures and high pressures found at the seafloor. As the Earth’s oceans warm, some scientists believe that massive amounts of methane could be released and ultimately reach the atmosphere. Studying how microbes process methane hydrates in this extreme environment will help astrobiologists understand how the deep sea ecosystem could change in the future.

    Jennifer Glass was a NASA Astrobiology post-doctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology when conducting this research. She is now an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

    The paper, “Geochemical, metagenomic and metaproteomic insights into trace metal utilization by methane-oxidizing microbial consortia in sulphidic marine sediments,” was published on November 14th in the journal Environmental Microbiology.

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    The Oldest Signs of Life on Earth

    An example of wrinkle mats at the Dresser Formation. Credit: Wikicommons An example of wrinkle mats at the Dresser Formation. Credit: Wikicommons

    Scientists studying geological structures in Australia have found evidence of microbial life in 3.48 billion-year-old rocks. Their discovery could represent the oldest biosignatures yet identified on Earth.

    Nora Noffke of Old Dominion University first spotted what looked like a microbially-induced sedimentary structure (or MISS) while visiting Australia in 2008. The MISS structures were found in Western Australia’s Dresser Formation, which contains some of the oldest known rocks on Earth’s surface. The Dresser Formation is an active research site for scientists studying the ancient environment of Earth, but the MISS structures had not been spotted before.

    With support from the NASA Exobiology Program and the NASA Astrobiology Institute, Noffke and her team returned to the Dresser Formation in order to determine whether or not the structures were truly biological in origin. The results of the study were published in the journal Astrobiology

    Studying MISS structures can help scientists understand what the environment of early Earth was like, providing clues about the origin and evolution of Earth’s biosphere. The structures could also help guide the search for ancient biosignatures on planets like Mars.

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    Glassy Coating Keeps Viruses Happy in Harsh Environments

    The dark round blobs in this photomicrograph are the capsids of Bacteriophage T4 virus particles, which retain their characteristic shape after being coated with silica. The long, straight "tails" of The dark round blobs in this photomicrograph are the capsids of Bacteriophage T4 virus particles, which retain their characteristic shape after being coated with silica. The long, straight "tails" of many of the virus particles can be seen extending from the capsids in this image as well. Credit: Jim Laidler

    What’s a virus to do when it finds itself in an inhospitable environment such as hot water? Coating itself in glass seems to not only provide protection, but may also make it easier to jump to a more favorable location to spread.

    Researchers led by a group from the Center for Life in Extreme Environments at Portland State University recently coated four different virus types in silica, a glassy substance found in certain types of hot springs. Three of the four viruses studied took on a silica coating and went into hibernation, reactivating when the coating was removed.

    The research was supported in part by the NASA Astrobiology Instiute (NAI), and has implications for seeking out viruses on other planets, including Mars. A research paper concerning the results will be printed in the Journal of Virology on Dec. 15.

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    A New Microbe Living in Spacecraft Clean Rooms

    This microscopic image shows dozens of individual bacterial cells of the recently discovered species Tersicoccus phoenicis. This species has been found in only two places: clean rooms in Florida and S This microscopic image shows dozens of individual bacterial cells of the recently discovered species Tersicoccus phoenicis. This species has been found in only two places: clean rooms in Florida and South America where spacecraft are assembled for launch. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

    Scientists have identified a new microbe in two geographically distant spacecraft assembly clean rooms. The bacteria is dubbed Tersicoccus phoenicis, since it was first found in the assembly clean room of the Mars Phoenix Lander.

    Spacecraft are assembled in clean rooms to prevent microorganisms from accidentally hitching a ride to space on missions. However, microbes are so prevalent on Earth that it is impossible to get a clean room 100% microbe-free.

    The microbes that do survive attempts to sterilize a clean room tend to be very hardy. They can live with very low nutrients and are able to tolerate heavy cleaning processes that expose them to stresses such as powerful chemicals and strong ultraviolet radiation. This is why microbiologists survey clean rooms in order to identify the organisms that are present.

    Workers begin integrating and testing the Phoenix spacecrafts landing radar during clean room processing. Credit: NASA/George Shelton Workers begin integrating and testing the Phoenix spacecrafts landing radar during clean room processing. Credit: NASA/George Shelton

    There are many reasons that scientists try to prevent microbes from attaching to spacecraft that are heading out into the Solar System. Microbes from Earth that travel to space could contaminate other planets like Mars. Earth microbes could also interfere with experiments that are designed to detect signs of past or present life on other planets.

    Tersicoccus phoenicis is not only a new species, but it’s also an entirely new genus (the next level up in the scientific system for classifying life on Earth). It was found in a clean room at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The microbe was then spotted in a second location -2500 miles away – at the European Space Agency’s facilities in Kourou, French Guiana. So far, these are the only two locations on Earth where Tersicoccus phoenicis is known to thrive.

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    The Evolution of Multicellularity: An Update

    The transition to multicellularity was one of a few major events in life’s history that created new opportunities for more complex biological systems to evolve. As this transition fundamentally changes what constitutes an individual, dissecting the steps in this transition remains a major challenge within evolutionary biology.

    Compared with other major transitions in evolution that occurred just once (for example, the origin of eukaryotes), multicellularity has evolved repeatedly. Most origins of multicellularity are ancient and transitional forms have been lost to extinction, so little is known about the potential for multicellularity to evolve from unicellular lineages, or the route through which a multicellular life history arises.

    In a new paper from NASA Astrobiology-funded researchers at the University of Montana and their colleagues, published this week in Nature Communications, new light is shed on the evolutionary problem of how life transitioned from unicellularity to multicellularity.

    The team shows how a single-celled alga can evolve a crude form of multicellularity in the lab – a configuration it never adopts in nature: a chance to replay one of life’s most important evolutionary leaps in real time.

    This is the second time a single-celled organism has done this in the lab – two years ago, the same was done with brewers yeast. But the alga is an entirely different organism, and comparing the two could explain how the transition to multicellular life happened a billion years ago.

    Multicellularity has evolved at least 20 times since life first began, but no organisms have made the leap in the past 200 million years, so the process is difficult to study. To replicate the step in the lab, the team grew 10 cultures of a single-celled alga. Every three days, they centrifuged each culture gently and used the bottom tenth to found the next generation. Since clusters of cells settle faster than single ones, this meant that they effectively selected for algal cells that had a tendency to clump together.

    Sure enough, after about 50 generations, algal cells in one of the 10 cultures began to form clusters. To the researchers’ surprise, these clusters – the first step towards true multicellularity – seemed to pass through a coordinated life cycle. Cells stuck together for hours while they settled, then quickly broke apart into single cells again each of which then divided to form new multicellular colonies.

    The team used a similar technique to evolve multicellularity from a single cell of yeast. However, critics noted that although modern yeasts are single-celled, they have descended from a multicellular ancestor, so the yeast may have merely been exhibiting an ancestral hangover. The alga, on the other hand, has always been unicellular.

    Another difference between the two organisms is that they become multicellular in different ways. Individual yeast cells remain attached to one another after cell division to form multicellular “snowflakes” that reproduce by breaking off arms. The algal cells, in contrast, divide fully but the cells remain embedded in a jelly-like sheath. This multicellular mass later releases individual cells to reproduce.

    Further study of the differences could shed light on why multicellularity has developed differently in the various lineages of life.

    The study suggests that multicellularity itself is not necessarily a difficult evolutionary hurdle.

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    Curiosity Redux: Results So Far From the Science Team

    The Curiosity Rover took this composite self-portrait in the Rocknest sand patch on Mars. Tests of soil at the site suggest that troublesome chemicals called perchlorates are common on the Red Planet. The Curiosity Rover took this composite self-portrait in the Rocknest sand patch on Mars. Tests of soil at the site suggest that troublesome chemicals called perchlorates are common on the Red Planet. Credit: NASA

    NASA’s Curiosity Rover landed on Mars a little over a year ago, and results from its first four months of data collection have now been published in the journal Science.

    Five articles outline numerous findings from Curiosity’s suite of instruments, including data from Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction (CheMin). The studies will help astrobiologists understand past and present environmental conditions on Mars. Two points of interest found along Curiosity’s initial 500-meter drive are a rock dubbed Jake_M, and the aeolian deposit (a pile of wind-blown sand, silt and dust) known as Rocknest.

    The first paper, “The Petrochemistry of Jake_M: A Martian Mugearite” (Stolper et al., 2013), describes how Jake_M is an example of martian magma that is unlike any other rock yet identified on the Mars. Jake_M was analyzed by Curiosity’s Alpha Particle X-ray Spectrometer, and the study provides some clues as to whether or not water was present when the rock was formed.

    The second paper, “Soil Diversity and Hydration as Observed by ChemCam at Gale Crater, Mars” (Meslin et al., 2013), discusses initial results from the Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) instrument. ChemCam identified two different soil types in Curiosity’s 500-meter traverse. No significant exchange of water vapor between the soil and atmosphere was detected, but ChemCam did show that water molecules bound to the soil make up an estimated 2% of the weight of particles.

    Curiosity also scooped up samples from Rocknest and analyzed them with its CheMin instrument. The rover found that the composition of the crystalline component of samples was similar to basalt rocks from Mars’ Gusev crater – the landing site of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover (MER), Spirit. Samples from the amorphous material from Rocknest resemble places on Earth like Hawaii’s Mauna Kea volcano. The results are discussed in the paper, “X-ray Diffraction Results from Mars Science Laboratory: Mineralogy of Rocknest at Gale Crater” (Bish et al., 2013).

    The fourth paper, “Curiosity at Gale Crater, Mars: Characterization and Analysis of the Rocknest Sand Shadow” (Blake et al., 2013), describes how aeolian deposit from Rocknest are similar to deposits studied previously by both the MER Spirit and Opportunity rovers. Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument found that volatiles of water, oxygen, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, and chlorine were contained in the samples.

    The final paper, “Volatile, Isotope, and Organic Analysis of Martian Fines with the Mars Curiosity Rover” (Leshin et al, 2013), discusses what happened when SAM heated samples from Rocknest and analyzed the gases that were produced. The results indicated that water made up about 1.5% to 3% of the weight of the samples. A number of simple organic molecules were also detected, but scientists cannot be sure that they martian in origin.

    Astrobiologists will use the new wealth of data from Curiosity to reconstruct Mars’ complicated geological and environmental history. This is important in understanding whether or not habitats suitable for life as we know it once existed at the planet’s surface.

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    The First Earth-Sized Rocky Planet

    This illustration compares Earth with the newly confirmed scorched world of Kepler-78b. Kepler-78b is about 20 percent larger than Earth and is 70% more massive. Kepler-78b whizzes around its host sta This illustration compares Earth with the newly confirmed scorched world of Kepler-78b. Kepler-78b is about 20 percent larger than Earth and is 70% more massive. Kepler-78b whizzes around its host star every 8.5 hours, making it a blazing inferno. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

    Using data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, astronomers have discovered the first rocky, Earth-sized planet orbiting a distant star. The planet, Kepler-78b, may be 'Earth-sized’ but it is not 'Earth-like.’ It whizzes closely around its host star in just 8.5 hours, and is so hot that it is uninhabitable for life as we know it.

    Kepler-78b was first identified by the Kepler space telescope, which has spent four years searching for planets around more than 150,000 stars. Two teams used ground-based observations to confirm the planet’s existence and to study its properties

    A small number of planets have been found that have a similar size or mass to the Earth. Kepler-78b is the first planet where measurements for both size and mass are known. Scientists were able to use this information to calculate its density and determine what the planet is made of.

    Papers from each team were published in the journal Nature, the first under lead author Andrew Howard and the second under lead author Francesco Pepe.

    An artist's conception of Kepler-78b orbiting its parent star once every 8.5 hours. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA) An artist's conception of Kepler-78b orbiting its parent star once every 8.5 hours. Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

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    Astrobiology in the Folds

    Close up of a space filling representation of a domain in 23S rRNA from E. coli. Credit: Petrov et al. (2013) Close up of a space filling representation of a domain in 23S rRNA from E. coli. Credit: Petrov et al. (2013)

    Astrobiologists have revealed new information about the structure of RNA molecules found in the ribosome of cells. The study indicates that long-accepted models of ribosomal RNA (rRNA), which are used to study how ribosomes function, require some major updating.

    Previous models indicated that rRNA was built out of 6 separate pieces – known as domains. These six domains were organized around a central core, and the structure of this core was a bit of a mystery. This model of rRNA became an iconic example of the structure and can be found in nearly all biology and biochemistry textbooks. Now, astrobiologists supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) have shown that the central core of the molecule is actually an entirely separate domain.

    “It speaks to how complicated the ribosome is, and how difficult it is to understand on a molecular level,” says Dr. Loren Williams, Principle Investigator for the NAI team at Georgia Tech and co-author of the paper. “We worked with it for years without realizing it was wrong.”

    The new 2° structure based on data from high-resolution 3-D models (from E. coli). This structure accurately represents all helices, and contains seven domains (Domain 0 in orange; Domains I-VI are co The new 2° structure based on data from high-resolution 3-D models (from E. coli). This structure accurately represents all helices, and contains seven domains (Domain 0 in orange; Domains I-VI are colored as in panel 1a). In the traditional 2° structure shown above, a central single-stranded region of rRNA is partitioned between multiple domains. In the new 2° structure, that same rRNA is double-helical and is fully contained within Domain 0. Credit: Petrov et al. (2013)

    rRNA is found in all living cells, but there are slight differences in molecules taken from different species. Studying the similarities and differences provides important clues about how the molecule has evolved throughout the history of life.

    Ribosomes have been around for as long as life itself, and act as a mediator between nucleic acids and amino acids in living organisms. Studying the structure of rRNA and how it functions in cells can help astrobiologists understand how these molecules became such a necessary a part of life’s cellular machinery.

    The traditional 2° structure of the 23S rRNA of E. coli. This structure is based on phylogenetic data, and is shown as two fragments. The structure contains six domains (Domain I, purple; Domain II, b The traditional 2° structure of the 23S rRNA of E. coli. This structure is based on phylogenetic data, and is shown as two fragments. The structure contains six domains (Domain I, purple; Domain II, blue; Domain III, magenta; Domain IV, yellow; Domain V, pink; Domain VI, green). Credit: Petrov et al. (2013)

    The Georgia Tech team has released high-resolution, editable versions of their results online in the hope that other researchers can evaluate and add to the revisions they have made (http://apollo.chemistry.gatech.edu/RibosomeGallery).

    The paper, “Secondary structure and domain architecture of the 23S and 5S rRNAs,” was published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research in June, 2013, and is available online at: http://nar.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/06/14/nar.gkt513.full#xref-ref-43-1

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    The Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology Funding Opportunity

    Application Deadline: February 3, 2014

    The American Philosophical Society and the NASA Astrobiology Institute have partnered to promote the continued exploration of the world around us through a program of research grants in support of astrobiological field studies undertaken by graduate students, postdoctoral students, and early career scientists who are affiliated with U.S. institutions.

    The Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology is designed for field studies in any area of astrobiology research. Grants may be used for travel and related expenses, including field equipment, up to $5,000. Applications will be reviewed by a committee that includes members of the NAI, the APS, and the wider science community as needed. Recipients will be designated as Lewis and Clark Field Scholars in Astrobiology.

    Additional information, including the application forms and instructions, is available at the APS’s Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology page: http://www.amphilsoc.org/grants/astrobiology

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    NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF) Program

    NASA has announced a call for graduate fellowship proposals to the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellowship (NESSF) program for the 2014-2015 academic year. This call for fellowship proposals solicits applications from accredited U.S. universities on behalf of individuals pursuing Master of Science (M.Sc.) or Doctoral (Ph.D.) degrees in Earth and space sciences, or related disciplines. The purpose of NESSF is to ensure continued training of a highly qualified workforce in disciplines needed to achieve NASA’s scientific goals. Awards resulting from the competitive selection will be made in the form of training grants to the respective universities.

    The deadline for NEW applications is February 3, 2014, and the deadline for RENEWAL applications is March 17, 2014.

    The NESSF call for proposals and submission instructions are located at the NESSF 14 solicitation index page at http://nspires.nasaprs.com/ – click on “Solicitations” then click on “Open Solicitations” then select the “NESSF 14” announcement. Also refer to “Proposal Submission Instructions” and “Frequently Asked Questions” listed under “Other Documents” on the NESSF 14 solicitation index page.

    All proposals must be submitted in electronic format only through the NASA NSPIRES system. The advisor has an active role in the submission of the fellowship proposal. To use the NSPIRES system, the advisor, the student, and the university must all register. Extended instructions on how to submit an electronic proposal package are posted on the NESSF 14 solicitation index page listed above. You can register in NSPIRES at http://nspires.nasaprs.com/.

    For further information contact Claire Macaulay, Program Administrator for NESSF Earth Science Research, Telephone: (202) 358-0151, E-mail: claire.i.macaulay@nasa.gov or Dolores Holland, Program Administrator for NESSF Heliophysics Research, Planetary Science Research, and Astrophysics Research, Telephone: (202) 358-0734, E-mail: hq-nessf-Space@nasa.gov.

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    Research Scientist Opportunity at the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI)

    The Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) at the Tokyo Institute of Technology is now providing up to 20 positions in the present recruitment for ELSI Research Scientist positions. ELSI aims to answer the fundamental questions of how the Earth was formed, how life originated in the environment of early Earth, and how this life evolved into complexity.

    ELSI will pursue these questions by studying the “origin and evolution of life” and the “origin and evolution of the Earth” through an interdisciplinary collaboration between the fields of Earth, Life, and Planetary Sciences. By understanding the early Earth context that allowed for the rise of initial life, we will also contribute to a greater understanding of the likelihood of extraterrestrial life in our solar and extrasolar systems.

    Requirements: ELSI Research Fellows must hold a Ph.D. degree from an accredited institution in a relevant field at the time of appointment.

    Starting Date: January 1, 2014 or earliest possible date thereafter, preferably no later than September 2014. Period of employment is three years, with a possible extension to five based on performance. Salary: JPY 4,800,000 to JPY 7,000,000 per year depending on experience, including social insurance, taxes, and all allowances (commuting, housing, etc.).

    To apply, submit an application through ELSI’s public position offering page: http://www.elsi.jp/en/category/recruitment/scientific-staff/ The application should include your Resume/Curriculum Vitae, publication list with your three most important papers marked clearly, and a statement of research interests and plans that specifically addresses intended contributions to the origin and early evolution of Life and/or Earth studies. (Please limit the length to 3 pages.) Also provide contact information for three people who will provide letters of recommendation (name, email address, affiliation and position.) After sending your application, please ask three different individuals to submit letters of recommendation via email to: recruitment@elsi.jp If you have any questions regarding this process, please contact us by email and we will get back to you. Contact: recruitment@elsi.jp Applications will be accepted until the positions are filled.

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    Astrobiology Program Early Career Collaboration 2013 Awards

    The NASA Astrobiology Program Early Career Collaboration Award offers research-related travel support for graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. The following early career scientists were selected for travel support from the April 2013 competition:

    Michael Chaffin, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado at Boulder
    Travel to the Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales, to work with Franck Montmessin, CNRS Senior Scientist “Collaborating with LATMOS in Extending Analysis of Martian Water Escape”

    Dalton Hardisty, University of California, Riverside
    Travel to the laboratories of Zunli Lu, Syracuse University and David Johnston, Harvard University, “Evaluating trace oxygen production prior to the Great Oxidation Event using a novel combination of rare sulfur isotope fractionations and iodine-to-calcium ratios in well-preserved Archean carbonate rocks”

    For more information on this opportunity see http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/funding/nasa-astrobiology-early-career-collaboration-award/

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    2013 Selections for the NASA Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellowship Program

    The NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP) provides opportunities for Ph.D. scientists and engineers of unusual promise and ability to perform research on problems largely of their own choosing, yet compatible with the research interests of the NASA Astrobiology Program. The following early career scientists were selected for NPP support from the 2013 competition:

    Rika Anderson
    Advisor: Rachel Whitaker (NAI University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign)
    Topic: ”Unraveling the impact of ecological selection pressures on the archaeal pangenome”

    Maya Gomes
    Advisor: David Johnston (NAI Massachusetts Institute of Technology)
    Topic: “Sulfur isotope variability associated with storm-induced environmental changes in modern lakes: a novel approach for calibrating sulfate levels in ancient oceans”

    Neha Kamat
    Advisor: Jack Szostak (Exobiology: Prebiotic Evolution)
    Topic: “Enhancing the efficiency of non-enzymatic RNA replication on protocell membranes”

    Margie Kinnersley
    Advisor: Frank Rosenzweig (Exobiology: Early Evolution of Life and the Biosphere)
    Topic: “Co-Evolution of Escherichia coli and its parasite Bdellovibrio bacteriovorus: An experimental model for Eukaryogenesis”

    Jonathan Toner
    Advisor: David Catling (NAI Virtual Planetary Laboratory at the University of Washington)
    Topic: “Investigations of low-temperature liquid, viscous, and glassy states important for astrobiology on Mars and other icy bodies”

    For more information about this opportunity visit: https://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/funding/nasa-astrobiology-postdoctoral-fellowship-program/

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    The Search for Life Beyond the Solar System – Astrobiology School Bioshpere2

    We are pleased to announce the 3-day The Search for Life Astrobiology School which will be held at the University of Arizona’s Biosphere2 facility in Tucson, AZ March 14-16, 2014. The school will directly precede the major astrobiology conference Exoplanets, Biosignatures, and Instruments: The Search for Life Beyond the Solar System.

    Website: http://www.ebi2014.org
    Email: school@ebi2014.org
    Dean: Dr Rory Barnes (U Washington)
    Lecturers: Rory Barnes, John Baross, Olivier Guyon, George Ricker

    The school will provide a background for early career scientists – graduate students and postdocs – who might not have been exposed to the breadth of topics in the main meeting. The school is open only to participants of the main EBI meeting with research interests that align with the conference’s topics. The curriculum of the school includes requirements for planetary habitability, planet formation, prebiotic chemistry, evolution of the early earth, metabolisms, transit detection and direct imaging of exoplanets.

    The school and the conference have separate application procedures. To apply to the school, applicants send a one page essay on his or her reasons to attend, and arrange for an advisor to send a letter of recommendation endorsing the applicant’s participation in the school. The deadline to apply for the school is Dec 1, 2013 and we expect to announce the list of selected participants on Dec 10, 2013.

    More information can be found at the conference website, or by e-mailing school@ebi2014.org.

    Pending on sponsorship we plan to offer the school at little to no cost to participating students, including lodging and food.

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    Postdoctoral Opportunity at the University of California, Santa Barbara (Origins of Life)

    Applications are invited for a postdoctoral position or technician to study the origin of life, in the areas of RNA molecular biology, biochemistry, and/or bioinformatics. We invite candidates with either experimental or computational expertise. Candidates should have an outstanding research record or potential and a degree in biochemistry, chemistry, biophysics, bioinformatics, or equivalent subject matter.

    Research topics include evolutionary fitness landscapes, metagenomics, and the RNA world.

    For more information on active research areas and instructions for applications, see: http://web.chem.ucsb.edu/~chen and http://www.chem.ucsb.edu/about/career-opportunities
    Questions may be directed to Irene Chen chen@chem.ucsb.edu

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    Postdoctoral Opportunity at University of California, Merced (Molecular Evolutionary Systems Biology)

    A Ph.D. student position is available in the computational biology and evolution lab of David Ardell at the University of California, Merced. Seeking a highly motivated Ph.D. student interested in developing a systems biological theory for the evolution of the genetic code. This position is supported by a 3-year NSF INSPIRE award entitled “Selection as an Organizing Principle: from Molecules to Languages.” As such, the successful applicant will have the opportunity to exchange and collaborate with applied mathematicians and cognitive scientists in the context of our Molecules to Minds project http://moleculestominds.org.

    The Ph.D. project will 1) develop models for the evolution of macromolecular interactions, 2) extend models in our CMCpy code-base for code-message coevolution http://compbio.ucmerced.edu/ardell/software/cmcpy/, 3) develop or adapt new simulation methods on emerging computing platforms, and 4) address theoretical questions such as those raised by Vetsigian, Woese, and Goldenfeld (2006) Collective evolution and the genetic code. PNAS 103(28):10696.

    The ideal candidate will combine strong programming and quantitative skills with a passion for biological questions, experience in collaborative and interdisciplinary research, and scholarship in theoretical biology, evolutionary theory, systems biology, artificial life, and/or astrobiology.

    UC Merced is a small, young and vibrant campus with excellent access to Yosemite National Park, the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Santa Cruz coastal beaches and mountains.

    To apply for this position, please apply to the Quantitative and Systems Biology program by December 15th. Please also send an e-mail to David Ardell at dardell@ucmerced.edu containing your CV and a cover letter in plain text or pdf formats.

    For further information please see http://compbio.ucmerced.edu/ardell and http://panorama.ucmerced.edu/news/researchers-win-prestigious-grant-study-similarities-language-molecules

    Please address inquiries to David Ardell at dardell@ucmerced.edu

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    Tenure Track Assistant Professorship University of California, Merced (Molecular Systems Biology)

    The Molecular Cell Biology unit and Quantitative and Systems Biology graduate group at UC Merced invite applications for an Assistant Professor (tenure-track) position from exceptional candidates in the field of Molecular Systems Biology. We seek experimental biologists who make technically innovative, theory-driven, high-dimensional measurements of whole cells and subcellular systems to explain fundamental biological processes. Theoretical biologists undertaking simulations at such scales are also invited to apply. Research areas of interest include macromolecular interaction networks, kinetic networks, regulatory networks, and multiplex single-molecule analysis. Applicants must have a Ph.D. in Molecular Systems Biology or allied field, a record of impact on the field of Molecular Systems Biology, and potential to maintain an extramurally-funded research program. The candidate will be expected to teach undergraduate and/or specialized graduate courses in quantitative and systems biology. For more information or to apply: http://jobs.ucmerced.edu/n/academic/position.jsf?positionId=4949. Fullest consideration will be given to applications received by December 15th. AA/EOE.

    UC Merced offers a unique academic atmosphere that fosters interdisciplinary research – connecting physical and mathematical sciences research to life sciences, materials sciences and engineering. We are committed to rapidly growing these collaborative research areas with allied and concurrent searches this year in Immunology, Biophysics, Applied Mathematics, Biomaterials, Bioengineering and Mechanical Engineering http://www.ucmerced.edu/careers. Applicants are encouraged to apply separately for all positions that match their interests and qualifications. For inquiries please contact the Search Chair, Prof. David Ardell at dardell@ucmerced.edu

    UC Merced is the newest campus in the UC system and currently serves more than 5000 undergraduate and graduate students. The University of California, Merced, is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer with a strong institutional commitment to the achievement of diversity among its faculty, staff and students. The University is supportive of dual career couples.

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    Pilbara Field School 2014

    An 8-day field school is being presented by Professor Martin Van Kranendonk, co-director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology of the University of New South Wales, and one of the most experienced geologists in the world in Archean rocks.

    The field school will take place June 28 to July 6, 2014 and will examine the early Archean rocks of the Pilbara Craton of Western Australia in the North Pole Dome and around the town of Marble Bar, where fossilized remnants of Earth’s oldest convincing evidence of life are preserved in excellent exposures. The field school is designed to give participants the chance to observe these ancient fossils in their natural settings and to spend time mapping key exposures in order to gain experience in geological mapping techniques and an appreciation for the complexity of geological interpretation and habitat reconstruction in these very old rocks.

    Designed for both experienced geologists and novices alike: educators, administrators and others with an interest in early life on earth and the search for life on Mars are encouraged to attend.

    Access to the sites will be by 4-wheel drive vehicles. Indoor accommodation will be provided near mapping sites, but participants will have the option to camp Ozzie style, under the stars. All food provided.

    Cost (ex Port Hedland, Western Australia): approx. AUD $3,500 pp.
    To find out more, please contact: m.vankranendonk@unsw.edu.au

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    Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life

    The Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life is now accepting applications for its Simons Investigator awards. The deadline for application is January 27, 2014. The purpose of the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life is to advance our understanding of the processes that led to the emergence of life. The collaboration aims to support creative, innovative research on topics including the astrophysical and planetary context of the origins of life, the development of prebiotic chemistry, the assembly of the first cells, the advent of Darwinian evolution and the earliest signs of life on the young Earth. The Simons Collaboration understands that such creative and even risky research could take years to bear fruit. Through these awards, the Simons Foundation seeks to build a community dedicated to origins-of-life research collaborations.

    For more information and application instructions visit: https://www.simonsfoundation.org/funding/funding-opportunities/life-sciences/collaboration-on-the-origins-of-life-investigator-award/

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