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2010 Annual Science Report

Montana State University Reporting  |  SEP 2009 – AUG 2010

PHL 278: A Gateway Course for a Minor in Astrobiology

Project Summary

We have recently developed obtained Montana Board of Regents for an undergraduate minor in Astrobiology at Montana State University. The Minor includes courses in Earth Sciences, Physics, Astronomy, Microbiology, Ecology, Chemistry, and Philosophy. Two new courses have been developed as part of the minor, one of which is a gateway or introductory course examines the defining characteristics of life on earth as well as the challenges of a science that studies life and its origin. The other course which will be offered fall 2011 is the capstone course for the minor which will delved into the science of Astrobiology in more detail and targeted for Juniors and Seniors that have fulfilled the majority of the requisite course requirements for the curriculum.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
0 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

In Fall 2010, as a component of our newly approved Minor in Astrobiology at Montana State University, the first section of PHL 278: Origins of Life was offered. The course is a core “contemporary issues in science” requirement and asks students to use philosophical skills and scientific knowledge to evaluate theories regarding the nature and emergence of life on earth and elsewhere. The course examines the defining characteristics of life on earth as well as the challenges of a science that studies life and its origin. Questions asked in the course include: How is this emerging science different from more established scientific endeavors? How should scientists choose between competing theories about the origins of life? What can life as we know it tell us about the potential for extra-terrestrial life? What would constitute an “alternative form of life” and how would we recognize it if we found it? Is artificial life possible? What are the ethical and social implications of research on artificial and alternative life? In examining these questions the course explores interdisciplinary research regarding life happening across our campus, including research in biochemistry, chemistry, computer science, earth sciences, and physics. This course is designed to cause students to think critically not only about a variety theories about life, but also about the production of scientific knowledge and concepts such as evidence, explanation, and observation. 26 students are currently enrolled in this 4-unit course, which requires 3 term papers as well as substantial laboratory experience.

Example Lecture Slides From PHL278

A couple example lecture slides from the PHL278 highlighting the basics of “Origin of Life” concepts and emphasizing the main thrust of Montana State University’s research emphasis probing the role of minerals and their derivatives in prebiotic chemistry and the transition from the non living to the living Earth.

    Prasanta Bandyopadhyay

    Kristen Intemann

    John Peters

    Sara Waller

    Trevor Beard
    Doctoral Student

    Trinity Hamilton
    Doctoral Student

    Objective 1.1
    Formation and evolution of habitable planets.

    Objective 1.2
    Indirect and direct astronomical observations of extrasolar habitable planets.

    Objective 2.1
    Mars exploration.

    Objective 2.2
    Outer Solar System exploration

    Objective 3.1
    Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts

    Objective 3.2
    Origins and evolution of functional biomolecules

    Objective 3.3
    Origins of energy transduction

    Objective 3.4
    Origins of cellularity and protobiological systems

    Objective 4.1
    Earth's early biosphere.

    Objective 4.2
    Production of complex life.

    Objective 4.3
    Effects of extraterrestrial events upon the biosphere

    Objective 5.1
    Environment-dependent, molecular evolution in microorganisms

    Objective 5.2
    Co-evolution of microbial communities

    Objective 5.3
    Biochemical adaptation to extreme environments

    Objective 6.1
    Effects of environmental changes on microbial ecosystems

    Objective 6.2
    Adaptation and evolution of life beyond Earth

    Objective 7.1
    Biosignatures to be sought in Solar System materials

    Objective 7.2
    Biosignatures to be sought in nearby planetary systems