Biosignature Detection Working Group


Biosignature detection is a recurrent and dominant theme in most research programs selected under the NAI CAN 6 and CAN 7. This provides a unique opportunity to assemble a Working Group that can address questions of immediate implications for upcoming missions funded under NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (MEP) and Solar System Exploration, and help expand collaborative synergies among the NAI teams.

The field of biosignature detection is vast and integrates a broad range of research areas over the entire scope of the Astrobiology Roadmap, from prebiotic chemistry to in situ and remote methods, techniques, and technologies. Some of the key underlying questions include: What are the precursors to life? What does constitute a biosignature? How do we recognize them? How are these signatures affected by time and changes in environmental conditions?

Most CAN-6 and CAN-7 NAI teams cover at least one or more aspects of these questions in their research groups, and the intent of convening a Working Group is not to duplicate existing efforts. Rather, it aims at developing synergies, new fields, and focused collaborations to:

- Identify and develop activities within the NAI that will support currently planned missions to Mars and Europa, and the design of future missions to high-priority targets (e.g., Enceladus).

- Create pathways for engagement beyond the NAI between the Working Group and (a) Mars and Europa mission project teams and instrument PIs; and (b) the broader Mars, Outer Solar System Exploration and Astrobiology scientific communities.

- Produce reports and recommendations of direct relevance to these mission’s objectives, instruments, exploration strategies, and landing site selection.

The connection to upcoming missions fits well NAI’s goal of Working Group producing success metrics and short- to mid-term deliverables (Mars2020 launches in 5 years).

Working Group Focus
The primary focus of this Working Group will be to develop and implement targeted scientific studies and methodological analyses that will help increase the probability of detecting biosignatures in upcoming missions. It will take into consideration: (a) mission science objectives; (b) instrument payloads; © spectral scales and spatial resolution of existing instruments (or planned) onboard robotic asset in orbit and at the surface; and (d) known and modeled characteristic of environmental evolution.

Within this Working Group, we propose to focus on two complementary cross-NAI team research areas to create quantum leap in our progress in biosignature detection (i.e., search and recognize):

The Impact of Radiation on Biosignature Preservation – Developing an understanding of Early Earth and studies of terrestrial environments that may serve as analogs of upcoming and future Astrobiology mission targets are common themes that stretch across NAI teams. However, analog environments that serve as scientific and technological testbeds for the development of Astrobiology exploration strategies are for the most part dominated by extant biology. In contrast, in Solar System environments that are expected to be accessible in near-term missions (e.g., Mars, Europa and other icy satellites) evidence of the presence of extant or extinct life likely will have be radically altered by radiation environments unlike those found on Earth. While Mars and Europa have contrastingly different environments, the lack of a thick atmosphere exposes both worlds to severe radiation. Atmosphere, surface composition, and evolution, are inherited from different histories and processes in different parts of the Solar System. However, ultimately, understanding how radiation exposure may have, and still does affect biosignature preservation potential for both worlds, is a fundamental step in determining where to search, what to search, and how to search for traces of past and present life.

Here, the goal is to strategically coordinate and focus on-going cross team NAI research related to the understanding of radiation environments on the alteration and preservation of biosignatures, and to use this work to develop remote sensing and in situ biosignature search methodologies that can be implemented in upcoming missions. Examples of on-going relevant NAI research related to this goal include: the MIT team focus on evaluating depositional environments and the history of diagenesis within Gale crater; the NASA Ames focus on laboratory studies with mixtures of relevant minerals, organic molecules, and ices to study radiation- and surface-mediated (i.e., catalysis) chemistry; the University of Wisconsin team focus on biomarker stability in space environments; the NASA JPL team focus on the evolution of ocean materials expressed on the surface of airless icy bodies when exposed to photolysis and radiolysis; and the SETI NAI team focus on the role played by water, minerals and soil matrices, UV, and cosmic rays on organic preservation potential.

Mission Support: A strategic objective of this Working Group would be to support project teams and instrument PIs with relevant samples (e.g., contact by the Mars 2020 team Deputy Project Scientist, Europa Clipper’s Project Scientist, etc). The collection or preparation, and field and/or laboratory characterization, of such samples (natural and synthetic) is a direct outcome of the research produced by the NAI teams and would not result in any additional cost, while sharing them with mission teams will add great scientific value. This would also provide an excellent opportunity to create bridges between scientists on both sides (missions/NAI) while expanding the reach of the NAI. Collaborations are envisioned in the following areas:

(1) Creating sample imaging and spectral libraries as reference archives for the upcoming missions;
(2) Sharing physical samples, datasets, and metadata;
(3) Supporting mission teams in testing payload engineering models at relevant analog field sites where mission instrument PIs can test their instruments in a natural setting and
(4) Supporting mission teams through “ground truth” laboratory measurements for assessing their mission payload instruments’ performances

Activities 1-2 do not require additional funds from the NAI; Activity 3 would be supported by mission instruments PIs if they are interested; Activity 4 is partially supported through NAI funding with the SETI Institute team and complementary funding is being sought by some of the Mars 2020 mission scientists.

Examples of Synergistic Studies at the NAI

- Taphonomy, the impact of changing environmental conditions on preservation, and the evolution of biological habitability (MIT, SI, VPL).

- Modification of organic compounds by physical and chemical processes (e.g., UV and cosmic rays (Ames, SI, JPL, GSFC)

- Habitability elsewhere in the present day Solar System (NASA GSFC, SI, JPL)

- What can observable surface chemical signatures tell us about the habitability of subsurface oceans (JPL)

- Laboratory studies with mixtures of relevant minerals, organic molecules, and ices to study radiation- and surface-mediated (i.e., catalysis) chemistry (Ames, SI, JPL)

- Quantifying the geological and mineralogical progression of serpentinization reactions in the presence of absence of geology WHAT??? (Univ. Colorado, Boulder – Link with the Serpentinization System Studies Working Group)

- Evolution of organisms and their interaction with the environment (Univ. Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, SI)

- How do we search for microbes in the subsurface? (USC, SI)

- What biosignatures or evidence of subsurface environments stand the test of time? Are there novel preservation possibilities in the subsurface? (USC, SI)

- Calibrate the extent to which biomolecules are retained on minerals, and determine the relations between microbial species, biomarkers, and fluid and mineral geochemistry in modern volcanic hydrothermal systems, providing a view of microbial iron-redox systems on Early Earth and Mars (Univ. Wisconsin, SI)

- Methodology of Habitability and biosignature detection (VPL, SI, GSFC, JPL)

- Adaptive habitability and biosignature detection techniques (SI, JPL)

Core NAI Team Members and External Participants Interested in Contributing to this Working Group
Chair: Nathalie A. Cabrol (PI SETI Institute (SI) – Signatures of Life)
Co-Chair: Isik Kanik (JPL-Icy Worlds)

UC Riverside – Timothy Lyons, PI, Alternative Earths: Geochemistry: (a) elemental, stable isotopic (light and heavy), and organic biomarkers (Mars and icy moons)
University of Illinois – Nigel Godenfeld: Towards Universal Biology: Constraints From Early and Continuing Evolutionary Dynamics of Life on Earth
USC – Jan Amend, PI and Ken Nealson, Alternative Earths
USC – Co-I Rohit Bhartia, Deputy PI Mars 2020 SHERLOC Instrument
Univ. Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – Nigel Goldenfeld, PI: Enceladus: (a) Modeling of likely metabologic processes going on in microbial life in the global ocean; (b) Possible signatures of homochirality; (b) Signatures of serpentinization and hydrogen-powered life
University of Wisconsin – Clark Johnson, PI
JPL – Laurie Barge and Steve Vance
JPL – Luther Beegle, Principal Investigator of Mars 2020 SHERLOC instrument
JPL – Robert Pappalardo, Project Scientist of planned Europa Clipper mission
JPL – Diana Blaney, PI: Europa Clipper MISE (Mapping Imaging Spectrometer for Europa) instrument. (This instrument will probe the composition of Europa, identifying and mapping the distributions of organics, salts, acid hydrates, water ice phases, and other materials to determine the habitability of Europa’s ocean)
JPL – Ken Williford, Deputy Project Scientist of Mars 2020
MIT – Roger Everett Summons, Amino Acid and UV radiation
NASA Ames – Scott Sandford, NAI Team, The Evolution of Prebiotic Chemical Complexity and the Organic Inventory of Protoplanetary Disks and Primordial Planets
NASA GSFC – Michael Mumma, NAI Team, Radiation degradation of biosignatures and in situ detection of biosignatures via sequencing
RPL –Alexis Templeton, PI and John Spear, Co-I: Forming, preserving, detecting biosignatures in subsurface/rock (or mineral-hosted environments)
SETI Institute – Co-Is Andersen, Bishop, Cady, Ertem, Hinman, Moersch, Philipps, Quinn, Sobron, Summers, Wettergreen
SETI Institute Coll – Hiromi Kagawa, NExSS

References and Presentations
Co-Evolution of Life and Environment, and the Search for Life Beyond Earth
Powerpoint available for download.

Proposed Timeline

Phase 1 – Establish a roadmap for the activities of the Biosignature Detection Working Group:
Convene the Biosignature Detection Working Group NAI members through a series of videocoms and create an outline of priority science questions to be addressed within the scope of the WG, identify cross-connections between teams, identify WG activities, tasks, and task leads, and a timeline of activities and deliverables; Establish primary goals and objectives for collaborations with mission project and science teams; Introduce the Working Group to the landing site selection community and broader astrobiology community.

Phase 2 – Implementation Phases
Generate samples and datasets through lab and fieldwork; Deploy to field sites of extreme terrestrial solar irradiance (e.g., high Andes, Yellowstone, other to be identified) with invitation to mission instrument PIs to participate in field deployments; Define and complete lab experiments; Share samples within the NAI Working Group members; Establish Biosignature Detection Working Group postdocs to support umbrella activities within the Working Group; Establish regular cycles of telecoms and Workshop Without a Wall to discuss and present results.

Phase 3 – Deliverables
Publications, presentations, and recommendation reports on the identification of the types of environments and geobiomaterials that provide best preservation potential in extreme radiation environments and should be considered priority targets for ground science operations; and metrics on comparative methodology and exploration strategies for remote and in situ investigations.

Conference on Biosignature Preservation and Detection in Mars Analog Environments 2016

Reno, NV
May 16, 2016

Introduction to “Comparison of Environmental Habitability: Evolution and Preservation in Time.” Powerpoint is available for download.
Presenter: Nathalie Cabrol

2015 Director's Discretionary Fund Projects

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.

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.

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.

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.

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    Co-Evolution of Life and Environment, and the Search for Life Beyond Earth Download