ASU Scientists Join NASA Astrobiology Institute

May 19, 1998

You have to understand life if you are going to try and find it, particularly when you are looking in hostile alien environments.

Scientists at Arizona State University are engaged in a broadly-based search for ancient and current life that extends from the biosystems of toxic hot springs of the deep ocean, to the deep subsurface crust, to salty, alkaline lakes, and back in time to looking at stardust and meteorites left over from the early evolution of the solar system, to the fossil record of ancient life both here on Earth and on other bodies in the solar system, like Mars and Europa. This work involves the use of a wide variety of advanced technologies, ranging from highly sophisticated molecular analysis, to robots and advanced sensors for exploring distant planets and moons.

Though they come from diverse disciplines, these researchers are all united by a central question -- does life exist beyond the earth?

Now, thanks to a new NASA research initiative, these disparate efforts will be connected by more than their goals. ASU is one of 5 university partners selected for membership in NASA's new "virtual" Astrobiology Institute and ASU research will be united under the auspices of a new ASU Astrobiology Center that will coordinate curriculum development in astrobiology and help coordinate ongoing research with the work of scientists at other institutions around the country.

Planned to take advantage of the next generation of internet technology, the NASA Astrobiology Institute will be administered by Ames Research Center in California, NASA's center of excellence for Astrobiology and Information Technology. The new institute will use Next Generation Internet (NGI) and advanced telecommunications to link together the investigators and students at separate member institutions around the country. The NGI will also be used to facilitate the development of a variety of "virtual" institute activities to advance research and education in astrobiology.

Budget negotiations have not been completed yet, but NASA Astrobiology funding is expected to double by 2001.

"I'm excited for the whole university," said Jack Farmer, who coordinated the successful ASU proposal. Farmer, currently a research scientist with the Exobiology Branch of the NASA Ames Research Center, will be joining ASU in the fall as Professor of Geology.

"The ASU proposal resonates extremely well with the stated goals of the new Astrobiology Initiative and will really help put ASU on the map in this area," Farmer said. "As someone who has been involved in defining the core concepts of astrobiology through my participation in NASA strategic planning activities, I think the ASU proposal captures both the breadth and the depth of research in this new field of science."

Reflecting the university's long involvement with NASA's planetary programs and missions, as well as its unique strengths in evolutionary life sciences, planetary science and strategic collaborative partnerships, ASU's Astrobiology Center would focus on five different, although intersecting, research areas to answer key questions about the origin, evolution and distribution of life in the solar system:

Exploring possible sources for the early chemistry that preceded the origin of life on Earth, biochemist John Cronin and new ASU cosmochemist Laurie Leshin will investigate the organic chemistry of carbonaceous meteorites and interplanetary dust particles. (This work will involve the extensive use of ASU's world-class meteorite collection.) In exploring the origin and early evolution of life, geochemist John Holloway and his colleagues will be study the organic chemistry of hot vents of deep sea "black smokers" through a combination of theoretical, lab-simulated and field-based methods. Holloway's goal is to determine if life could have had an origin at high temperatures, a suggestion that has recently been the focus of much interest in the scientific community.

Robert Blankenship, first director of ASU's Center for Early Events in Photosynthesis, will explore another important aspect of early biosphere evolution by looking at the origin and evolution of the first photosynthetic systems. Oxygen-producing photosynthesis marked critical step in the evolution of the Earth's atmosphere, climate and life, and this work has critical implications for the search for life in other places.

A collaborative effort by Farmer and ASU geologists Tom Sharp and Paul Knauth will study the processes by which microorganisms become fossilized, and how more biological information can be extracted from the ancient rock record on Earth. This work will focus on a number of important modern environments including thermal springs and alkaline, saline lakes where environmental extremes are thought to be analogous to the ancient Earth. The fossil record of early life will also be studied to understand the nature of the early oceans and the conditions of salinity and temperature where life developed.

Extending the study of evolution in extreme environments to embrace more complex ecosystems, an interdisciplinary team led by biologist Thomas Dowling will continue current research efforts in studying simple associations of microbes, plants and animals to understand the evolution of ecosystems under different conditions of energy and nutrient availability.

An interdisciplinary group including planetary geologists Philip Christensen, Ronald Greeley and exobiologist Farmer will continue the experiments beyond Earth, exploring the surfaces of two of the most intriguing places in our Solar System, Mars and Europa. Christensen is the principal investigator for the Mars Global Surveyor's thermal emission spectrometer experiment, a remote sensing instrument that will identify and map the mineralogy of the Martian surface to help identify the best places to search for past or present life. Greeley, who heads Galileo imaging team, has been at the center of evaluating the new high resolution imaging data obtained from Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter. The exciting prospect of an ocean beneath the icy mantle of Europa's crust has focused NASA's attention on developing a new mission there in 2003. With the prospect of a record of past life on Mars and living organisms on Europa, missions to Mars and Europa will provide ample opportunities to apply the lessons learned from the other astrobiological studies and to refine strategies in the search for extraterrestrial life.

John Cronin is the ASU program's principal investigator, with Farmer assuming this role when in joins the ASU faculty in August.

The ASU Astrobiology Center will also include a strong teaching component. The goal of the ASU Astrobiology Center will be to coordinate the scientific and educational activities of a large number of faculty both at ASU and within the Astrobiology Institute as a whole. This will involve a number of activities to promote the communication of research results and to create training opportunities for students in a broad range of disciplines, including geology, biology, biochemistry, microbiology and physics. One of the teaching options being considered is the possibility of offering astrobiology courses over the internet, so university students from other institutions can also participate in the institute.

"The budget supports research assistants at all levels, undergraduates, graduate assistants, and postdocs," Cronin notes. "There will be courses generated here in life in the universe, origins of life, planetary science and so on. There will be a seminar series as well, and possibly an interdisciplinary degree program offered."

"There are a lot of exciting educational outreach possibilities using state of the art internet resources and our distributed faculty," said Farmer. "ASU is an ideal place for this to happen -- it has well-known reputation for educational outreach in planetary studies."

Co-investigators in the ASU Astrobiology Center include John Holloway, Peggy O'Day, Paul Knauth, Thomas Sharp, Philip Christensen, Ronald Greeley, Laurie Leshin and Carol Tang from the department of geology; Thomas Dowling and James Elser from the department of biology; and, as an institutional partner, Biosphere II.

Looking to the future, NASA's new Astrobiology initiative and ASU are a natural fit, according to ASU Interim Vice Provost for Research Jonathan Fink. "We've got strong planetary studies and planetary biology programs and an internationally known meteorite center. Integration in this area between our geology, geochemistry and with life sciences programs seemed to make sense.

"We also had recently targeted and successfully hired Jack Farmer from NASA and Laurie Leshin from UCLA. Both add new dimensions to our programs and promise to raise the level of our research and collaboration up even further. In January, we will also get Gary Huss, who will further support this effort," Fink noted.

Huss, who currently directs the ion probe facility at California Institute of Technology, also happens to be the grandson of Harvey Nininger, the original donor of ASU's Nininger Meteorite Collection, the largest university collection of meteorites in the world.

Statement from ASU Interim Vice Provost for Research, Dr. Jonathan Fink

"ASU's participation in the NASA Astrobiology Institute places Arizona in the forefront of a world-class research effort to study life in the universe. Recent discoveries of organisms that exist in extreme environments on Earth, together with the discovery of planets in other solar systems and the evidence suggesting that water is present elsewhere in our own solar system hint at the possibility that life may exist elsewhere. We will be exploring, with other members of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, how life might develop in nonterrestrial environments, and in the process we hope to gain new insights on how life developed on the earth.

"This award builds on Arizona State University's traditional research strengths in the areas of astronomy, planetary geology, biology, biochemistry, materials science, photosynthesis and related fields. Winning this award is a tribute to the quality of the ASU faculty, given the extraordinary caliber of the competition we faced."

"We are excited to be one of the participants in the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Multidisciplinary and collaborative efforts such as this one represent the future for research and we are pleased to add astrobiology to a growing number of such programs in our college, including the Center for Solid State Science and the Central Arizona Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research Project, to name two.

"I am perhaps even more excited for students attending our university, who will have the opportunity to join in this scientific endeavor through the courses and seminars this program will generate and through direct participation in this research, which is sure to be one of mankind's greatest adventures."

Arizona State University

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