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2006 Annual Science Report

Reporting  |  JUL 2005 – JUN 2006

Carl Pilcher
NAI Director: Carl Pilcher
Letter from the Director: 2006 NAI Annual Report

It is my pleasure to submit the NAI Annual Report covering the period July 2005-June 2006. This was a challenging year, during which the Institute began responding to a 50% Astrobiology Program budget cut while continuing to produce ground-breaking research results.

The NAI released its fourth Cooperative Agreement Notice (CAN-4), soliciting proposals to replace four NAI teams whose 5-year Cooperative Agreements were concluding. Although proposals were received and reviewed, and the reviews distributed to the proposers, the Astrobiology Program budget cut led to a deferral of any selections. The result was a contraction of the Institute from sixteen teams to twelve. NAI Central was downsized comparably as well.

Other NAI activities continued despite the budget cut, although at reduced levels. The Institute continued support for the Astronomy, Astrobiotechnology, Early Earth, Evogenomics, Europa, Titan, Virus, and Impacts Focus Groups. Major events of the reporting year included a Europa workshop; an EvoGenomics workshop; and a workshop and field expedition to the Lassen National Volcanic Park organized by the Virus Focus Group.

The NAI Postdoctoral Fellowship Program was successfully transitioned from the National Research Council to the Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU). The NAI supported only one proposal cycle rather than two during this reporting period, resulting in the selection of three new fellows in August 2005. Calls for new applicants are planned for August 2006 and March 2007. Visit the NAI website for a complete list of current and past NAI Postdoctoral Fellows.

The Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology was established in 2006. A joint initiative between the NAI and the American Philosophical Society (APS), the fund supports astrobiological field studies by junior scientists. Recipients are designated Lewis and Clark Field Scholars in Astrobiology. Six awards were made this year for a diverse set of field investigations ranging from the Black Sea (“Expedition to the Mid-Proterozoic: Understanding the Nitrogen Cycle in the Black Sea Suboxic Zone”) to the Canadian High Arctic (“Sampling at the Unique Sulfur-Rich Icy Ecosystems at Borup Fiord Pass on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian High Arctic”). The NAI website has the full list of 2006 awards.

Through its Conference and Workshop Fund, the NAI supported numerous workshops, conference sessions and meetings this year. Activities included a January 2006 American Astronomical Society session, “Planets in Binary Star Systems;” a March 2006 International Conference of Alpine and Polar Microbiology session on “Genetic Approaches” to studying psychrophiles; and a May 2006 American Geophysical Union session, “Biosignatures: Distinguishing Biology from Abiological Look-Alikes.”

Although the NAI Astrobiology Drilling Program, which coordinates international continental drilling projects of astrobiological interest, did not support new field work, it continued support for curation, cataloguing, and distribution of core samples from previous projects.

The NAI Minority Institution Research Program (NAI-MIRS program), which supports partnerships between NAI members and researchers from minority institutions, attracted extensive interest from scientists at Hispanic, African-American and Native American serving institutions. Managed by the Minority Institute Astrobiology Collaborative (MIAC) and Tennessee State University , the program this year awarded the NAI-MIRS Tribal College Travel Award to Katherine Bancroft of Montana State University and the NAI-MIRS faculty sabbatical research award to Michael Ceballos of Salish Kootenai College .

NAI Central also supported Education and Public Outreach (E/PO) activities as diverse as the field of astrobiology. One highlight was “NASA and the Navajo Nation,” a competively-selected NASA Explorer Institute project led by NAI Central’s E/PO Coordinator Daniella Scalice. The project developed K-12 informal educational materials that weave together astrobiology and Navajo cultural teachings. The materials, six hands-on activities and a short film, were designed for a “Community Night Event” setting, involving whole communities in an educational experience. This project has opened an opportunity for NASA to expand its E/PO efforts to include the Navajo Nation in viable, rewarding partnerships. Visit the NAI website to read more about other E/PO projects funded this year.

Most importantly, the NAI continued its record of notable scientific discoveries, and played a significant role in shaping NASA space missions.

NAI’s Marine Biological Laboratory team reported a major finding about the under-explored “rare biosphere” of the deep oceans. It has been recognized for some time that the oceans harbor much more phylogenetic diversity than is present in the dominant microbial populations, and that this “genetic reservoir” may provide an enormous source of novel genetic information. Using a new high-throughput genetic sequencing technique, NAI PI Mitch Sogin and colleagues showed that there are thousands to tens of thousands types of bacteria present at abundances perhaps as low as a few per liter of seawater, in comparison to cumulative abundances of the dominant species of 10 8 -10 9 per liter. The high degree of genetic diversity in this rare population indicates that it is old on evolutionary (and geologic) time scales.

The diversity and potential of this rare biosphere links the evolutionary timescales of interest to astrobiology with the much shorter timescales of interest to NASA’s Earth Science Program. Further, the techniques developed to characterize the rare biosphere are applicable to the detection of low abundance organisms on spacecraft we send to other planets to study habitable environments or search for evidence of life. This research thus illustrates how astrobiology can, and does, connect different aspects of NASA’s programs while advancing in fundamental ways our understanding of life on Earth.

In another exciting research effort, NAI Postdoctoral Fellow Sean Raymond, and NAI-supported graduate student Avi Mandell, working with a more senior team member Steinn Sigurdsson, have demonstrated that extrasolar planetary systems with “hot Jupiters,” i.e., Jupiter-size planets close to their parent stars, may also contain terrestrial planets in the habitable zone where liquid water can exist on a planet’s surface. This conclusion is surprising because hot Jupiters most likely form much farther from their parent stars, in the cold outer regions of a proto-planetary disk, and then migrate inward through the habitable zone to the orbit in which we observe them. Some earlier studies had indicated that this migration would prevent the formation of terrestrial planets.

This work, which involved NAI teams at the University of Colorado, Pennsylvania State University, the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Caltech Virtual Planetary Laboratory, indicates that a third of the roughly 200 known extrasolar planetary systems may contain a habitable zone terrestrial planet. This study and others to follow will help us prepare to interpret data from NASA’s Kepler mission, scheduled to launch in 2008, which will study planetary system architectures with the goal of identifying systems with habitable zone terrestrial planets.

These are just two highlights of NAI’s many contributions to the science of astrobiology this year. I invite you to browse this Annual Report and the NAI website for many other exciting research results.

With best wishes,

Carl Pilcher
NAI Director