1. NAI Newsletter 2014-10-07

    October 22, 2014 Issue






    NASA Selects New Science Teams for the NASA Astrobiology Institute

    NASA has awarded five-year grants, totaling almost $50 million, to seven research teams nationwide to study the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe.

    “With the Curiosity rover characterizing the potential habitability of Mars, the Kepler mission discovering new planets outside our solar system, and Mars 2020 on the horizon, these research teams will provide the critical interdisciplinary expertise to help interpret data from these missions and future astrobiology-focused missions, “ said Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division, at NASA Headquarters, Washington.

    The average funding for each team will be approximately $8 million. The interdisciplinary teams will become members of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), headquartered at NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California.

    The selected teams are:

    • NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland. Team lead is Michael Mumma. Research will investigate one theorized source of Earth’s water and the organic molecules needed for life: comets and the other small bodies in our solar system. The results of this research will inform the search for habitable environments in our solar system and habitable planets around other stars.
    • NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, California. Team lead is Scott Sandford. Research will address the chemistry which occurred to create the organic molecules that may have been brought to the early Earth by comets and other small bodies.
    • NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Team lead is Isik Kanik. Research will conduct laboratory experiments and field research in environments on Earth, such as The Cedars in Northern California, to understand the habitability of extraterrestrial icy worlds like Europa, Ganymede and Enceladus.
    • The SETI Institute, Mountain View, California. Team lead is Nathalie Cabrol. Research will produce guiding principles to better understand where to search for life, what to search for, and how to recognize finding evidence of past or current life. The goal of the proposed research is to best prepare for NASA’s Mars 2020 rover.
    • University of Colorado in Boulder. Team lead is Alexis Templeton. Research will study what scientists call “Rock-Powered Life.” Rocky planets store enormous amounts of chemical energy that, when released through the interaction of rocks with water, can power living systems not only here on Earth but on other planets such as Mars.
    • University of California, Riverside. Team lead is Timothy Lyons. Research will examine the history of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere and ocean between 3.2 and 0.7 billion years ago. This is a time range in which the amount of oxygen present is thought to have increased from almost nothing to the amounts present today. This work will address the question of how Earth has remained persistently inhabited through most of its dynamic history and would provide NASA exploration scientists a template to investigate the presence of habitable conditions on Mars and other planetary bodies.
    • University of Montana in Missoula. Team lead is Frank Rosenzweig. Research will look to unlock the secrets of life’s transitions from small “units” conducting simple chemical reactions to self-organizing, self-reproducing, energy-gathering systems that range in complexity from single cells to ecosystems.

    “The intellectual scope of astrobiology is vast, from understanding how our planet went from lifeless to living, to understanding how life has adapted to Earth’s harshest environments, to exploring other worlds with the most advanced technologies to search for signs of life,” said Mary Voytek, director, astrobiology program, NASA Headquarters. “The new teams cover that breadth of astrobiology, and by coming together in the NAI, they will make the connections between disciplines and organizations that stimulate fundamental scientific advances.”

    The seven new teams join five continuing teams at the University of Washington in Seattle, led by Victoria Meadows; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, led by Roger Summons; University of Wisconsin, Madison, led by Clark Johnson; University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, led by Nigel Goldenfeld; and University of Southern California, Los Angeles, led by Jan Amend.

    For more information about the new teams, NAI, and NASA’s astrobiology program, visit: http://astrobiology.nasa.gov

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    NAI Research Citations Now Directly Linked to Source Documents by DOIs

    In an effort to support the scholarly work of the NAI Teams, DOIs (Digital Object Identifier) have been added to the peer-reviewed publication citations in the Annual Science Reports for the years 2009-2013. This summer, NAI Software Intern, Jonathan H. Amireh (Ames USRA) developed a DOI search program utilizing the CrossRef developer API and a verification schema to associate DOIs with the reported NAI publication citations. The Librarian at the Life Sciences Library at NASA Ames, Lisa Sewell, then reviewed missing DOIs not found by the automated program. This project, together with previously reported DOIs in the database, has resulted in over 2500 (90%) of our publication citations having DOI or URL links.

    The DOI is a permanent (persistent) unique ID for journal articles, and other online documents. It’s like a GPS device for digital objects that takes the reader to the front door of the published item. Interested readers no longer need to search for an abstract or the full-text, just click on the embedded DOI link and the reader is instantly taken to the published article. If the reader has access to the publication through a paid subscription, or if the article is open access, the full text of the item is immediately available to them. Alternatively, they may read the abstract and have the opportunity to purchase a PDF or HTML version of the desired publication. This greatly improves the ability to use our publication dataset for assessing the scientific impact and interdisciplinarity of the Institute’s research results, and allows publication or bibliometric analysis for characterizing, among other things, most cited papers, authors, and journals. Give it a try with this 2012 PLoS ONE article.

    Athavale, S.S., Petrov, A.S., Hsiao, C., Watkins, D., Prickett, C.D., Gossett, J.J., Lie, L., Bowman, J.C., O’Neill, E., Bernier, C.R., Hud, N.V., Wartell, R.M., Harvey, S.C. & Williams, L.D. (2012). RNA Folding and Catalysis Mediated by Iron (II). PLoS ONE, 7(5): e38024. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0038024

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    Australian Centre for Astrobiology “Grand Tour” 2015

    Following the success of the first Grand Tour during 2013 the exercise will be repeated on 15-25 July 2015. As a contribution to the astrobiology community, the Australian Centre for Astrobiology will run a field trip to sites that every astrobiologist or geobiologist should see at least once in their lives. It will be a high level educational experience that will enrich the research and teaching programs of the participants. Included will be the extant stromatolites of Shark Bay, the 2.5Ga banded iron formations, and an associated iron ore mine of the Hamersley Basin, the putatively cyanobacterial stromatolites of the 2.7 Ga Fortescue Group, and the 3.35-3.49 Ga fossiliferous and other units of the Pilbara Craton, with what is arguably the oldest convincing evidence of life on Earth. Expect intense discussions about such topics as the timing of the origin of oxygenic photosynthesis and the composition of the Archean atmosphere. The tour will be led by Professor Malcolm Walter. As well as the science, participants will enjoy some spectacular scenery, memorable campfire dinners, and sleeping under the southern stars (made easy by professional camp managers, Outdoor Spirit). Places will be strictly limited because of the capacity of the aircraft, bus, country hotels, sheep station (ranch) and camping facilities to be utilized. Daytime temperatures will be mild (20-30 ºC) dropping to 5-10 ºC at night. Rain is possible but unlikely.

    Additional information and a link for bookings can be found at: http://aca.unsw.edu.au

    Enquiries can be made to malcolm.walter@unsw.edu.au

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    Ariel Anbar Named President of Biogeosciences Leadership at AGU

    Ariel Anbar, Principal Investigator (PI) in the Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology (Exo/Evo) element of the NASA Astrobiology Program, has been named President-Elect of the Biogeosciences Leadership at the American Geophysical Union for the 2015-2016 Term.

    Anbar is a Professor in Arizona State University’s (ASU) School of Earth and Space Exploration. Earlier this year, he was also selected as the first Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor at ASU.

    In addition to his work with Exo/Evo, Anbar is also a Co-Investigator for the new NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) team at the University of California: Riverside.

    The 2014 AGU Fall Meeting will be held December 15-19 in San Francisco, California.

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    Sean Solomon to Receive National Medal of Science

    Sean Solomon, PI for NASA's MESSENGER mission, has been selected to receive the National Medal of Science. Credit: NASA Sean Solomon, PI for NASA's MESSENGER mission, has been selected to receive the National Medal of Science. Credit: NASA

    Sean Solomon, former principal investigator for the NASA Astrobiology Institute team at the Carnegie Institution, has been selected to receive the National Medal of Science.

    Solomon is now the Director of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, and serves as principal investigator for NASA’s MESSENGER (MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry, and Ranging) mission. MESSENGER is the first spacecraft to orbit Mercury and is currently completing a second extended mission at the Solar System’s inner-most planet. Additional NASA missions in which Solomon has been involved include the Magellan mission to Venus, the Mars Global Surveyor mission, and the GRAIL mission to the Moon.

    The National Medal of Science was created in 1959 and is the highest scientific honor in the United States. Recipients are selected by the President of the United States from a pool of nominees based on their outstanding contributions to science and engineering.

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    Exomoons Could Be Abundant Sources of Habitability

    Europa is one of the moons in our solar system that could host life. What about beyond the solar system? Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk Europa is one of the moons in our solar system that could host life. What about beyond the solar system? Credit: NASA/JPL/Ted Stryk

    With about 4,000 planet candidates from the Kepler Space Telescope data to analyze so far, astronomers are busy trying to figure out questions about habitability. Look at our own solar system, however, and there’s a big gap in the information we need. Most of the planets have moons, so surely at least some of what Kepler finds would have them as well. Tracking down these tiny worlds, however, is a challenge.

    A new paper in the journal Astrobiology goes over this mostly unexplored field of extrasolar research. The scientists do an extensive literature review of what is supposed about moons beyond the Solar System, and they add intriguing new results.

    The study was supported in part by the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory and the National Science Foundation.

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    Life’s Wrinkles in the Sand

    Wrinkle structures reproduced in the laboratory​. by moving microbial aggregates on a bed of loose fine sand. The total width of the image is 30 cm. Credit: Mariotti et al. 2014 Wrinkle structures reproduced in the laboratory​ by moving microbial aggregates on a bed of loose fine sand. The total width of the image is 30 cm. Credit: Mariotti et al. 2014

    A new study shows how wrinkle structures can form on a bed of sand when waves and microorganisms are present. Wrinkle structures on sandy bed surfaces are rare on Earth today, but were more common in ancient sedimentary environments. These ancient sediments often have trace fossils and imprints of early animals, and appeared in the geological record after some of the largest mass extinctions on Earth.

    Some scientists have theorized that wrinkle structures are the remnants of dense colonies of microbes known as microbial mats, but the new study proposes a different origin.

    In their experiment, researchers placed microbial aggregates on bare sand in a wave tank. Microbial mats are dense colonies of microorganisms that are often many layers thick and attached to a surface. Microbial aggregates are basically broken-up pieces of microbial mats, which are produced when the mats are damaged in events like storms or strong currents. Animals that feed on microbial mats also help break them apart, making them more susceptible to storms and helping to produce free-floating microbial aggregates.

    The team showed that the wrinkle structures are formed in the interaction between microbial aggregates and sandy sediments when waves are present. The waves do not move sand grains directly. Instead, they act on the microbial aggregates to produce these features. Aggregates of microorganisms (about a millimeter in size) are pushed around by waves, which results in the formation of features like ridges and pits.

    The team concluded that wrinkle structures are indeed biosignatures (signs of life’s presence), but that they form when microorganisms are present at the interface between sediment and waves, and not beneath microbial mats.

    The study was supported in part by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and was published in the journal Nature Geosciences.

    For a short Q&A with the researchers, read more here.

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    In the Zone. The Venus Zone: Seeking the Twin of Our Twin Among the Stars

    Not every planet in or near a habitable zone is habitable. Inhospitable Venus is an excellent example. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech Not every planet in or near a habitable zone is habitable. Inhospitable Venus is an excellent example. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

    A new study explores how distant analogs to Venus might be detected and differentiated from Earth-like planets. Discovering a twin to Venus could help astrobiologists identify systems similar to our own Solar System and narrow the search for habitable worlds around distant stars.

    The work was supported by the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory and published in Astrophyiscal Journal Letters.

    Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and co-author of the study recently spoke with Astrobiology Magazine about the team’s findings. The Q&A is available here.

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    Simulated Atmospheres of Alien Worlds

    Left: Ozone molecules in a planet's atmosphere could indicate biological activity, but ozone, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide -- without methane, is likely a false positive. Right: Ozone, oxygen, c Left: Ozone molecules in a planet's atmosphere could indicate biological activity, but ozone, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide -- without methane, is likely a false positive. Right: Ozone, oxygen, carbon dioxide and methane -- without carbon monoxide, indicate a possible true positive.

    Astronomers searching the atmospheres of alien worlds for gases that might be produced by life can’t rely on the detection of just one type, such as oxygen, ozone, or methane, because in some cases these gases can be produced non-biologically, according to extensive simulations by researchers in the NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory. The study appears in the current issues of the Astrophysical Journal.

    Thousands of times, over a period of more than four years, the researchers carefully simulated the atmospheric chemistry of alien worlds devoid of life, varying the atmospheric compositions and star types. “When we ran these calculations, we found that in some cases, there was a significant amount of ozone that built up in the atmosphere, despite there not being any oxygen flowing into the atmosphere,” said Shawn Domagal-Goldman of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This has important implications for our future plans to look for life beyond Earth.”

    Read the entire article

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    Recruiting Science Mentors for the SAGANet.org Fall 2014 Program

    SAGANet.org is looking for early-career scientists (grads, postdocs, starting faculty) interested in mentoring opportunities to engage the public in the excitement of science! As a SAGANet.org mentor, you will have the opportunity to connect with teachers, K-12 students and families using virtual and social media.

    Benefits of Becoming a SAGANet.org Mentor

    • Low time commitment: ~5-10 hours total for the fall semester.
    • High impact way to engage in STEM outreach from the comfort of your own desk! No commute necessary!
    • Expert training in science communication skills and mentoring best practices.
    • A peer-support group of like-minded early career scientists interested in engaging the public in the wonders of science!

    Participating mentors will receive expert training in science communication and earn a certificate of recognition upon completion of their mentoring experience!

    Fall 2014 Programs in Need of Mentors

    Discovery Room Science @ Home!
    Pair up with an elementary school student and their family to bring science into their home by working together to prepare a science project for a school fair! Program runs October 27th – December 12th, 2014, 10 Mentors Needed, total time commitment ~ 6 hours over 6 weeks.

    Pittsburg Science Challenge!
    Work with at-risk youth to build their confidence and presentation skills, while engaging them in the wonders of astrobiology, as you help them prepare to give a short public science presentation for their class! Program runs October 27th – December 19th, 2014, 10 Mentors Needed, total time commitment ~ 10 hours over 7 weeks.

    Find out more about the Fall 2014 Programs at http://saganet.org/page/current-programs

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    2015 Exploration Postdoctoral Fellowship Opportunity at ASU

    Application Deadline: October 31, 2014

    The School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE) at Arizona State University invites applications for the position of Exploration Postdoctoral Fellow. The fellowship provides opportunities for outstanding early-career scientists and engineers emphasizing interdisciplinary collaboration. Research areas within SESE encompass earth and planetary sciences, astrobiology, astrophysics and cosmology, instrumentation and systems engineering, and science education.

    Incoming Fellows will receive an annual stipend of $60,000 with health benefits, plus $6,000 per year in discretionary research funds. A relocation allowance will be provided. Appointments will be for up to three years and shall commence between July 1 and August 31, 2015.

    Applications must include a research proposal that has been discussed with two prospective faculty mentors in SESE. Applications are to be submitted via email to: exppd@asu.edu. A full description of the application process is available at: http://sese.asu.edu/ExplorationPostdocFellowships

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    Postdoctoral Fellowship Opportunities in Planetary/Exoplanet Science

    Deadline for applications and letters of recommendation: December 1, 2014.

    The University of Toronto Centre for Planetary Sciences (CPS) is a centre for the study of all planets. The CPS expects to offer several postdoctoral fellowships of up to three years. The starting date will be September 1, 2015. Salaries and funds for travel/research expenses will be competitive. A Ph.D. in any field of earth and planetary sciences or astrophysics is required. Fellows are expected to carry out original research in observational or theoretical planetary/ exoplanet science under the general supervision of the CPS-affiliated faculty at U of T.

    Only electronic submissions will be accepted. Applicants are asked to submit a curriculum vitae, statement of research interests (3 pages) and arrange for three letters of recommendation (note that two different websites are used for the application and for the submission of reference letters).

    The University of Toronto is strongly committed to diversity within its community and especially welcomes applications from minority group members, women, Aboriginal persons, persons with disabilities, members of sexual minority groups, and others who may contribute to the further diversification of ideas.

    CPS Information Website: http://cps.utoronto.ca/

    CPS Fellows Application Website: http://www.utsc.utoronto.ca/webapps/webforms/cps/postdoctoralfellows.php

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    Ph.D. Opportunities in Molecular Geomicrobiology at Michigan State University

    Application Deadline December 1, 2014

    Ph.D. opportunities are available in the molecular geomicrobiology of the deep biosphere in the lab of Matt Schrenk at Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI). The research involves the characterization of microbial ecosystems associated with hydrogen and methane-rich groundwaters and involves multi-disciplinary, international research collaborations. Projects focus on advancing our understanding of the ecology and evolution of microbial communities in the deep biosphere using both molecular and cultivation-based approaches. Research combines bioinformatics analyses of (meta-)genomic and transcriptomic data with field work and laboratory characterization of novel extremophiles. Appropriate applicants with a background in Biology, Earth Sciences, Oceanography, or related disciplines are encouraged to apply. For more information, please see: http://www.schrenklab.com.

    Please contact Matt Schrenk (schrenkm@msu.edu) for further information.

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    Postdoctoral Positions in Molecular Geomicrobiology at Michigan State University

    Application Deadline December 1, 2014

    Postdoctoral opportunities are available in molecular geomicrobiology in the lab of Dr. Matt Schrenk at Michigan State University (East Lansing, MI, USA). Microbial communities contained within subsurface environments may be important conduits for the exchange of carbon and energy between the deep Earth and the biosphere- yet surprisingly little is known of their extent, their identities, or their activities. We invite applications for a postdoctoral research associate that will link biogeochemical approaches with studies of microbial physiology and –omics techniques. The research will specifically address microbial activities in subsurface environments influenced by hydrogen and methane and make important contributions to resolving their contributions to carbon fluxes through these ecosystems. Candidates with interests in microbial physiology or analytical biogeochemistry are particularly encouraged to apply. For more information, please see: http://www.schrenklab.com.

    For consideration, please submit three items to Dr. Matt Schrenk (schrenkm@msu.edu):
    (i) a cover letter describing your research goals and your specific motivation to join the laboratory, (ii) a CV, and (iii) contact information for three references, including your Ph.D. supervisor.

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    2015 LPI Summer Intern Program in Planetary Science

    Deadline for applications is January 9, 2015

    The Lunar and Planetary Institute invites undergraduates with at least 50 semester hours of credit to experience cutting-edge research in the lunar and planetary sciences. As a Summer Intern, you will work one-on-one with a scientist at the LPI, or at the NASA Johnson Space Center, on a research project of current interest in lunar and planetary science. Furthermore, you will participate in peer-reviewed research, learn from top-notch planetary scientists, and preview various careers in science.

    The 10-week program begins June 1, 2015, and ends on August 7, 2015. Selected students will receive a $5660.00 stipend; in addition, U.S. students will receive a $1000.00 travel stipend, and foreign nationals will receive a $1500.00 foreign travel reimbursement.

    Applications are only accepted via the electronic application form found at the LPI’s Summer Intern Program website: http://www.lpi.usra.edu/lpiintern

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    Postdoctoral Fellowship Opportunity in Geobiology at the Agouron Institute

    Application Deadline March 15, 2015

    At least three postdoctoral fellowships will be awarded in 2015 for young investigators pursuing studies in the field of Geobiology, particularly those studies that merge an understanding of modern biological processes with application to interpretation of the ancient rock record. The Agouron Institute encourages cross-disciplinary training, therefore it is desirable for students who have conducted PhD level studies on modern processes to submit proposals focused on ancient geobiological processes, and vice versa. Each award includes an annual stipend ($60,000/year one, $62,000/year two) and an annual research supplement ($5,000 for supplies and travel). No overhead is provided with these fellowships.

    Applications will be accepted from students completing or having recently completed graduate studies for PhD or equivalent degrees. Preference will be for applicants with no more than one year of postdoctoral experience. International students are welcome to apply. Awards can only be issued to non-profit research universities or research institutions.

    Please submit the application and proposal electronically to info@agi.org. Be sure to have in the subject line: “Geobio Fellowship App: Your Name.” Please complete the following (1-3 below) in Times or Times New Roman (font size 12). Please use side margins no smaller than 0.5 inch with a bottom margin of 1” (1.7” for A4 paper).

    1. Application form (4 pages) that includes a short summary of prior research experience, summary of proposed research and a personal autobiographical statement.

    2. Brief research proposal (2-3 pages; references page 4; figures page 5 if needed). Be sure to include the title of the proposal at the beginning of the proposal.

    3. References. Please complete the top of the form and send it to your references. They may attach a letter after completing the ranking scale. a) postdoctoral research sponsor b) thesis advisor, and c) two additional research scientists.

    Please have reference form/letters submitted electronically to info@agi.org. Be sure to have in the subject line: “Geobio Fellowship App: Your Name.” Or, mail directly to the Agouron Institute, 1055 E. Colorado Blvd, Suite 250, Pasadena, CA 91106, USA.

    Awards will be announced by May 15, 2015. Fellowships may begin during the period of July 1, 2015 to January 15, 2016.

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    Oct 31 – Application Deadline for 2015 Exploration Postdoctoral Fellowship Opportunity at ASU http://sese.asu.edu/ExplorationPostdocFellowships

    Nov 1 – Application Deadline for NASA Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellowship Program http://nasa.orau.org/postdoc/application/index.htm

    Nov 6 – Application Deadline for Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowships http://nexsci.caltech.edu/sagan/fellowship.shtml

    Nov 12 – Proposal Deadline for 2014 NASA EONS Solicitation New Appendix http://nspires.nasaprs.com/external

    Nov 13 – Proposal Deadline for East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes for U.S. Graduate Students (EAPSI) http://www.nsf.gov/funding/pgm_summ.jsp?pims_id=5284

    Nov 18 – Abstract Submission Deadline for Workshop on Early Solar System Bombardment III http://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/bombardment2015/

    Nov 25 – Proposal Deadline for D.11 NuSTAR Guest Observer Cycle 1 http://nspires.nasaprs.com/external/

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