UW astrobiology research gets huge boost from $4.9 million NASA award

March 19, 2001

The University of Washington's research into understanding and finding life in the universe received a major boost today with a multimillion-dollar grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and membership in NASA's Astrobiology Institute.

The 5-year, $4.9 million renewable grant will support a variety of research, including the study of life forms that thrive in extreme Earth environments, such as polar ice and deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Such study is expected to further the understanding of conditions in which life might be found elsewhere in the universe.

The UW's unique doctoral program in astrobiology - begun three years ago to teach students the origin and history of Earth's life as well as how to hunt for life away from Earth - will benefit greatly from the grant and the Astrobiology Institute membership, said Peter Ward, a UW Earth and space sciences professor and lead scientist for the grant.

"Of course, this will help the teaching side because students doing the graduate work will now have the money to do the research," he said.

The UW group joins teams from Michigan State University, the University of Rhode Island and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as new members of the Astrobiology Institute. NASA said the teams will bring specialized expertise to the institute, allowing its members to more deeply investigate the diversity of life inhabiting extreme environments on Earth and to develop analytical models to search for habitable planets outside the Solar System.

In a statement, NASA said the UW team will address a broad series of important areas, from the biogeochemistry of the earliest life on Earth to the formation, evolution and potential for life on planets outside the Solar System.

Ward, a paleontologist, and UW astronomer Donald Brownlee, last year published a pioneering book, "Rare Earth," in which they examined the factors that allow life to evolve into advanced forms. They concluded that simple life is probably very common in the universe but that advanced life, even at the level of tube worms, is probably very rare and might be unique to Earth.

"The grant application was tailored around 'Rare Earth' in a sense," Ward said, "because we're looking at the rise in complexity and the conditions that make planets habitable."

The three specific areas of research under the grant are:

* How, where and how often habitable planets are formed.

* How often planets lose their habitability because of comet or asteroid impacts or other factors that trigger mass extinctions.

* Challenges faced by single-cell life evolving to more complex forms, and how that is accomplished.

Grant money will be spread among a dozen researchers. Most are at the UW and are involved in the university's astrobiology program. The program involves 11 departments in four colleges and schools. It was started in 1998 with a five-year, $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, and was supplemented last year by a permanent $151,000 annual allocation from the UW's College of Arts and Sciences to establish a Center for Astrobiology and Early Evolution.

Besides the UW researchers, scientists from New Mexico State University, the University of Arizona, the California Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are included in the NASA grant, Ward said.
The Astrobiology Institute, established three years ago, is a partnership between NASA and a number of academic or other research organizations to promote, conduct and lead multidisciplinary astrobiology research and train young researchers.

Other lead members are NASA's Ames Research Center, where the institute is based; Arizona State University; the Carnegie Institution; Harvard University; NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Johnson Space Center; Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass.; Pennsylvania State University; Scripps Research Institute; the University of Colorado and the University of California, Los Angeles. The Centro de Astrobiología in Torrejon de Ardoz, Spain, is an associate member.

For more information, contact Ward at 206-543-2962 or argo@u.washington.edu

University of Washington

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