1. Forming a Definition for Life

    What is life? In this interview, Gerald Joyce of the Scripps Research Institute reveals why it’s been so hard for scientists to come up with a definition that encompasses the multiple dimensions of life as we know it. Joyce’s research focuses on the origin of life, and his lab was the first to produce a self-replicating system, composed of RNA enzymes, capable of exponential growth and evolution.

    Defining 'life’ is a seemingly simple question that leads to complex answers and heated philosophical and scientific arguments. Some focus on metabolism as the key to life, others on genetics. If ...

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  1. Warming the Early Earth for Life

    Astrobiologists have made a new discovery that could explain how the early Earth was warm enough for life more than 3 billion years ago, even though the Sun was 20 percent dimmer than today. The answer to the ‘faint young Sun’ paradox may come down to the atmospheric composition of the young planet. The study shows that reasonable amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, mixed with a dash of methane, could have helped warm the Earth so that water remained in liquid form at the surface.

    Liquid water is thought to be essential for the origins of life as ...

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  1. No Light? No Problem for Life Under a Glacier

    Light drives photosynthesis, the mechanism used by many microbes to create energy from the Sun. But what if you live beneath a glacier where light is scarce? Microbes in such environments create energy by interacting with and breaking down local bedrock.

    While it’s known how the microbes affect the rock, a new study in Geology from astrobiologists at Montana State University show how the rock affects the microbes. They’ve identified pyrite as a key mineral in determining microbial community structure and composition. Given how common pyrite is, it may be the dominant control on microbial communities in many ...

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  1. Life Beneath Glacial Ice

    Despite the fact that Earth has experienced widespread glaciation throughout its history and that 11% of Earth’s surface today is covered with ice, active microbial communities in subglacial systems have yet to be fully characterized. Astrobiologists at Montana State University funded by NASA’s Exobiology Program have completed a study describing the presence of active, endogenous communities of microorganisms living beneath Robertson Glacier, Alberta, Canada.

    Molecular techniques have revealed that the communities are more diverse than glacial surface communities, and are making active contributions to the global carbon cycle. The study appears in the March, 2013 issue of the ...

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  1. The Next Step for Astrobiology’s Roadmap

    The Astrobiology Program has completed the first step in creating a new Astrobiology Roadmap. The next phase in outlining the future direction for astrobiology research and technology development at NASA is set to begin next week.

    Roughly every ten years, the Astrobiology Program updates NASA’s official Astrobiology Roadmap. This document provides guidance for research funded by the program in areas that encompass space, Earth and biological sciences.

    In writing the 2013 Astrobiology Roadmap, NASA’s Astrobiology Program decided to take a new approach by asking the global astrobiology community to take part in the process. A dedicated website and ...

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  1. Roadmap Astrobiology’s Future

    It’s time to chart the future directions of astrobiology research and you can participate. NASA is hosting a series of on-line hangouts and discussions focusing on broad themes in astrobiology: Planetary Conditions for Life, Prebiotic Evolution, Early Evolution of Life and the Biosphere, Evolution of Advanced Life, and Astrobiology for Solar Systems Exploration. The online conversations will then be used as the starting point for an in-person/virtual meeting to draft an outline for the Roadmap.

    At a face-to-face meeting from June 17 to 20 a series of concept documents on future astrobiology research topics were developed and posted ...

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  1. Rethinking Early Atmospheric Oxygen

    Astrobiologists supported in part by the Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology program have discovered that the biological oxygen cycle of the early Earth may have been more dynamic than previously thought. Complex life on Earth needs oxygen to survive. However, it wasn’t until the “Great Oxidation Event (GOE),” some 2.4 billion years ago that oxygen became a significant component of our planet’s atmosphere.

    Previously, geologists had used the presence of sulfur isotopes in the rock record to determine when the GOE occurred. The isotopes form when solar energy interacts with sulfur dioxide in low-oxygen conditions. Their presence in ...

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  1. TIME Magazine Features Nader Haghighipour

    Recently, TIME Magazine featured astrobiologist Nader Haghighipour an online interview at TIME Video. Haghighipour, is an associate astronomer at the University of Hawaii’s Institute for Astronomy. In the video, he talks about life as an astronomer at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, and the dedication it takes to hunt for habitable, extrasolar worlds.

    Identifying extrasolar planets at Keck is not a simple case of looking through the lens and spotting distant worlds. The process involves a large crew of people who are based at both the Keck Observatory on top of Mauna Kea and Keck Headquarters in ...

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  1. Oxygen-Poor Ocean Challenged Evolution of Early Life

    A team of astrobiologists supported in part by the NASA Exobiology program have uncovered new information about Earth’s early oceans during a period of time that was critical to the evolution of complex life. Their work is helping scientists determine the conditions present in the ocean after oxygen first accumulated in the Earth’s atmosphere, and how these conditions relate to the rise of eukaryotes.

    The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under lead author Christopher T. Reinhard.

    Source: [University of California, Riverside]

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  1. NASA Seeks New Director for the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI)

    The ideal candidate will be an internationally recognized scientist with proven experience in leading large, multi-disciplinary, multi-site research programs or projects, possessed with a vision for leading the Institute into the future. Established in 1998 as part of NASA’s Astrobiology Program, the NAI is a collaboration between NASA, US academic institutions, and foreign institutions, governments and research organizations – and is composed of over 800 US scientists and hundreds of researchers abroad. The NAI, currently headquartered at NASA Ames Research Center in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley, functions as a virtual institute, its members linked by modern information ...

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  1. Microbes Survive a Mixed Bag of Mars ‘Biocidals’

    For the first time, astrobiologists have found that microbes from Earth can survive and grow in the low pressure, freezing temperatures and oxygen-starved conditions seen on Mars. Until now, the lowest atmospheric pressure that researchers could grow bacteria in was just 25 millibars. That is nearly four times greater than the 7-millibar global average surface pressure of Mars.

    Microbiologists Wayne Nicholson and Andrew Schuerger at the University of Florida and their colleagues analyzed microbes found in permafrost soil collected from northeastern Siberia by the Soil Cryology Laboratory in Russia. The microbes were grown for up to 28 days in nutrient-rich ...

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  1. Exobiology Pioneer Carl Woese: 1928-2012

    Biophysicist and evolutionary microbiologist Carl R. Woese died December 30 following complications from pancreatic cancer. He was 84.

    Dr. Woese – a professor of microbiology with the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology and the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois-Urbana at the time of his death – is as well known outside the astrobiology community as he is inside it for his identification of a previously unknown “third domain” of life, the archaea, which he and his colleagues reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1977 1. NASA’s Exobiology Program issued its first ...

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  1. PAH IR Spectral Database

    A team of scientists led by Lou Allamandola at NASA Ames Research Center have compiled the world’s largest collection of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) infrared spectra, and have used them to create a web database to serve a variety of applications.

    The web site contains over 800 spectra of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in their neutral and electrically charged states and tools to download PAH spectra ranging in temperature from minus 470 to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. PAHs are flat, chicken-wire shaped, nano-sized molecules. Thanks to these spectra, PAHs are now known to be abundant throughout the Universe but often ...

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  1. Application Deadline Extension – Library of Congress Astrobiology Chair

    Application Deadline Extension to: Dec. 17, 2012

    Applications and nominations must be postmarked by Monday, Dec. 17, 2012. Guidelines and forms are available online.

    Established in the Fall of 2011, the Blumberg Astrobiology Chair is a distinguished senior position at the Library’s Kluge Center. The incumbent conducts research at the intersection between the science of astrobiology and its humanistic aspects, particularly its societal implications, using the collections and services of the Library. The incumbent is expected to be in residence at the Kluge Center for a period of up to 12 months. The stipend is $13,500 per month ...

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  1. Revealing Ancient Metabolism on Earth

    Researchers supported by the NASA Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology program have provided new information about the ‘diet’ of microorganisms on the early Earth. By studying 3.45-billion-year-old rocks in Australia’s Strelley Pool Formation, the team has uncovered clues about ancient microbial sulfur metabolism.

    “Our results do not prove that sulfate-respiring microbes produced the stromatolitic laminations—they just indicate that sulfate-respiring microbes were present within the microbial mat,” explains lead author Tomaso R. R. Bontognali. “This finding highlights important similarities between these early ecosystems and their modern counterparts.

    Their paper, “Sulfur isotopes of organic matter preserved in 3.45-billion-year-old stromatolites ...

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