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2006 Annual Science Report

SETI Institute Reporting  |  JUL 2005 – JUN 2006

Planetary Biology, Evolution, and Intelligence

Project Summary

Chris Chyba, Cynthia Phillips, Kevin Hand- The project has two components. The first, an overview of the astrobiological potential of various geological features on Europa, is proceeding well — we are continuing the study of various proposed formation mechanisms for different feature types such as ridges, bands, and chaotic terrain.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

Chris Chyba, Cynthia Phillips, Kevin Hand- The project has two components. The first, an overview of the astrobiological potential of various geological features on Europa, is proceeding well — we are continuing the study of various proposed formation mechanisms for different feature types such as ridges, bands, and chaotic terrain. The second, a search for current geological activity by comparing Galileo images taken on different orbits, is also in progress. We have completed a first-stage search of the Galileo Europa images to find overlapping images, and are continuing to work on improving our automated search method to make sure that we find all possible comparison images. We have processed a number of comparison pairs, and are currently working on automated techniques for speeding up the comparison process.

Max Bernstein- As part of performing lab measurements to enable the detection of signs of life and the discrimination between these and false biomarkers we have measured IR spectra of Nitrogen Heterocycles, the class of compounds found in meteorites that include nucleobases. We have been concentrating on the kind of conditions found on icy outer Solar System bodies such as Europa.

Rocco Mancinelli and Amos Banin- In a set of soil samples from the Yungay region of the Atacama desert we have conducted detailed analyses of organic and inorganic C and N concentrations. Organic carbon (OC) and organic nitrogen (ON) were low, especially in the soils from the most extreme arid region. OC/ON ratio was in the range typical for biotically synthesized organic matter. Comparison to estimates of C content in the Mars soil analyzed by the Viking Landers show that the Atacama soils, even in the hard-core extreme desert sites, have very low biological activity as terrestrial soils are concerned, but still have higher concentrations of total organic carbon compared to the Mars soils analyzed by the Viking Pyrolytic experiment.

When soil samples collected from the Yungay region of Atacama desert were analyzed for DNA encoding the genes for the nitrite reductase S gene the gene encoding for the key denitrification enzyme, it was not found. These data combinded with last years data where no trace of nitrogen cycling was detected in the field, even under wet conditions suggests that that either there are no organisms capable of N-cyclein in the soil, or the soil contains somethin inhibiting their activity.

Peter Backus, Jill Tarter, Rocco Mancinelli – We held a two and a half day workshop on July 18-20, 2005 on the topic of the Habitability of Planets Orbiting M Stars. Thirty scientists from nineteen institutions in the US and UK participated. Thirteen of the participants were from six other NAI Teams. Results of the workshop are reported in a paper submitted to the journal Astrobiology. The paper was written over many months through the use of email lists and a secure private web site. Another web site provided information for the general public.

Nathalie Cabrol- Despite harsh weather conditions in the altiplano this year, both planned ascents were completed successfully, one on the Licancabur volcano to continue our work from previous years, and the other one on our new site (Poquentica), another volcano hosting a lake located 800 km north of Licancabur. During our one-month, 800 km, trek through the Bolivian altiplano, the team also sampled about a half-a-dozen new sites (evaporating lakes, salars, and geothermal centers) Achievements include: (1) a new stratigraphical transect in the geological record of Laguna Verde to study the evolution of paleohabitats and life during fast changing climate conditions; (2) Biological sampling and water chemistry of the summit and lower lakes; (3) Retrieval of data from the meteorological station at the summit of Licancabur which logged for one year; (4) Geophysics: Measurements of UVA, UVB, PAR and UVC were performed; (5) Sampling of frozen soil (or permafrost) on the shore of the Licancabur and Poquentica lakes and sampling of ice from those lakes which were both frozen to depth this year preventing diving. Bin Chen has analyzed salt samples from the 2005 trip. She has identified organic composition in the Laguna Blanca samples. She is using the database to characterize the concentration and structure stability of biogenic carbonaceous contents, especially biomarkers such as hopane and the derivatives, which likely existed in the prokaryotic and eukaryotic membranes; study the chemical structures of the organic species and their interactions with the host environment (as in rock, salt and soil mixtures) to understand the preservation and evolution of the life in local conditions that include extremes of UV radiation, desiccation, cold temperature and salinity. She investigates abiogenic organics and components such as carbonate, oxyanionic mineral groups, sulfides and hydroxides produced from the biological activities. The next step will be to study the chemical stability and relative abundance of the biomarkers in the samples obtained from the geological transects in conjunction with the geochemistry, temperatures, pH (current lakes), salinity, UV radiation level, elevation in the transect and paleoenvironment. The correlation will help us understand how both extant and extinct life adapt to changes.

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David Summers & Bishun Khare- A paper is currently under review in the journal Astrobiology. Effort has partially turned to study of the stable isotope fractionation and the effects of water layers on mineral surfaces. (This data could then be combined with future isotopic composition work from the Atacama where nitrates may be of abiotic origin.) This included designing and constructing a new irradiation apparatus (now finished). Work also contributed to the study of the isotope fractionation in next step in the reaction sequence, reduction of nitrite to ammonia FeS + NO2 at pH ~5, shows an average fractionation of +6 per mil; FeCl2 + NO2 at pH 8.2 shows an average fractionation of -4 per mil). This work will also contributes to experiments to include the action of Fe(II) in the aqueous phase on the fixation processes.

Emma Bakes- Our mapping of the chemical sequences for anions, neutrals and cationic nitrogenated aromatic molecules in Titan’s organic haze layer is well underway, utilizing the participation of quantum chemist Alessandra Ricca. We are mapping the chemical energetics and the plausibility of each suggested reaction pathway for bicyclic nitrogenated aromatics suggestive of purine and pyrimidine bases of RNA and DNA molecules to probe the plausibility of their photochemical formation in an atmsosphere. UV penetration directly affects the survival or destruction of organic molecules and the irradiation of potential life forms and we have completed and published our investigation of how the UV radiation interacts with large molecules, tholins and the gas phase and to what degree it penetrates to the surface of Titan. Our laboratory study of hydrogen molecule synthesis on aromatics and aerosols to seek a physically plausible pathway to the accelerated oxidation of Titan and the early Earth is complete and published.

Friedemann Freund & Lynn Rothschild – The major objective of this task is to study the causes for the slow but inextricable oxidation of the Earth over the first 3 Gyr of its history. Contrary to the widely held belief that planet Earth became oxidized due to the activity of early photosynthetic microorganisms (akin to present-day blue-green algae and cyanobacteria), we have convincingly shown that there is an alternative and entirely abiogenic pathway toward global oxidation: the presence of oxygen anions in the minerals of common igneous rocks that have converted from a valence of 2— to a valence of 1— (peroxy). Upon weathering this peroxy fraction hydrolyzes to hydrogen peroxide, which in turn oxidizes reduced transition metal cations, foremost ferrous iron to ferric iron. This leads to the precipitation of ferric oxides in the ocean and, hence, to the deposition of Banded Iron Formations (BIF). After this process has gone on for sufficiently long time, 1-2 billion years, the rocks on the continents will evolve toward andesitic-granitic compositions and free oxygen will begin to be injected into the atmosphere.

Janice Bishop & Lynn Rothschild- This year we completed analyzing the data from our initial lab experiments and summarized our results in a paper that is in press in the International Journal of Astrobiology. This work showed that nanophase iron oxide-bearing minerals can facilitate growth of photosynthetic organisms by providing protection from UV radiation. Based on the spectral properties of iron oxides and the results of experiments with two photosynthetic organisms, we propose a scenario where photosynthesis, and ultimately the oxygenation of the atmosphere, depended on the protection of early microbes by nanophase ferric oxides/oxyhydroxides. Such niches may have also existed on Mars.

We have begun evaluating the OMEGA hyperspectral visible/near-infrared (VNIR) spectra of Mars in an effort to characterize deposits of nanophase ferric oxide-bearing minerals that could provide UV protected niches for photosynthetic microbes if they were present on Mars. This part of the project will be expanded this year as the CRISM hyperspectral VNIR images become available. Concurrent with other projects, we are evaluating the spectral properties of Fe-bearing Mars analog sites on earth and analyzing spectra of Mars for Fe oxide-bearing components. We have collected some material containing nanophase ferric oxides/oxyhydroxides from Yellowstone that we have begun analyzing. From the chemical and spectral data this sample appears interesting and we are hoping to perform some in situ field measurements during the next year.