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2012 Annual Science Report

Astrobiology Roadmap Objective 6.1 Reports Reporting  |  SEP 2011 – AUG 2012

Project Reports

  • Habitability of Icy Worlds

    Habitability of Icy Worlds investigates the habitability of liquid water environments in icy worlds, with a focus on what processes may give rise to life, what processes may sustain life, and what processes may deliver that life to the surface. Habitability of Icy Worlds investigation has three major objectives. Objective 1, Seafloor Processes, explores conditions that might be conducive to originating and supporting life in icy world interiors. Objective 2, Ocean Processes, investigates the formation of prebiotic cell membranes under simulated deep-ocean conditions, and Objective 3, Ice Shell Processes, investigates astrobiological aspects of ice shell evolution.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 5.1 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Biosignatures in Ancient Rocks

    The Biosignatures in Ancient Rocks group investigates the co-evolution of life and environment on early Earth using a combination of geological field work, geochemical analysis, genomics, and numerical simulation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 3.2 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Atmospheric Oxygen and Complex Life

    Our team is working to understand what the world looked like just before and just after the evolution of animals. This encompasses field geology (identifying rocks of that age), chemical analysis of those rocks, and close examination of the small, enigmatic fossilized forms within those same geologic units. To synthesize these interdisciplinary approaches, our team also works to contribute overview/review papers that speak to the contribution from each field.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 6.1 6.2
  • Detectability of Life

    Detectability of Life investigates the detectability of chemical and biological signatures on the surface of icy worlds, with a focus on spectroscopic techniques, and on spectral bands that are not in some way connected to photosynthesis.Detectability of life investigation has three major objectives: Detection of Life in the Laboratory, Detection of Life in the Field, and Detection of Life from Orbit.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 2.1 2.2 4.1 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Biosignatures in Relevant Microbial Ecosystems

    PSARC is investigating microbial life in some of Earth’s most mission-relevant modern ecosystems. These environments include the extremely salty Dead Sea, the impact-fractured crust of the Chesapeake Bay impact structure, methane seeps on the ocean floor, deep ice in the Greenland ice sheet, and oxygen-free waters including deep subsurface groundwater. We target environments that, when studied, provide fundamental information that can serve as the basis for future solar system exploration. Combining our expertise in molecular biology, geochemistry, microbiology, and metagenomics, and in collaboration with some of the planet’s most extreme explorers, we are deciphering the microbiology, fossilization processes, and recoverable biosignatures from these mission-relevant environments.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 7.1 7.2
  • Project 1D: Establishing Biogenicity and Environmental Setting of Precambrian Kerogen and Microfossils

    This study demonstrates new abilities to use in situ measurements of carbon isotope ratios in microfossil kerogen as a biosignature and to establish taxonomic and micro-structural correlations.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 4.1 5.1 5.2 6.1 7.1
  • Biomechanics of Rangeomorph Fauna

    The oldest evidence of complex communities of lifeforms come from Newfoundland, Canada. The fossil beds discovered there are dominated by rangeomorphs, which look superficially like underwater plants, but probably got their nutrition by direct uptake of dissolved resources in the water. Here, we use models of water flow in the community to see how these complex organisms could have competed with bacteria for organic matter or reduced compounds in the water. Ultimately, we have determined that by sticking up off the sea floor, rangeomorphs could take advantage of sheer forces created by moving water, and gain an advantage over bacteria in competition for nutrients. The benefits of sticking up into water flow may have driven the early evolution of complex life on earth. Ongoing work seeks to clarify the transitions between flow regimes across stages of community succession from prokaryotic mats to eukaryotic communities

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.2 6.1
  • Project 5: Geological-Biological Interactions

    This project seeks to better understand the interplay between microbes and extreme environments. Towards this end our NAI supported scientists study hot spring environments, both continental and sub marine, environments of active serpentinization where pH may exceed 11, and in the high Arctic. We use molecular, isotopic, and molecular biological approaches to get at the core of the relationship between the microbial world and the natural energy provided by geological processes.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 5.1 6.1 6.2 7.1
  • Planetary Surface and Interior Models and SuperEarths

    We use computer models to simulate the evolution of the interior and the surface of real and hypothetical planets around other stars. Our goal is to work out what sorts of initial characteristics are most likely to contribute to making a planet habitable in the long run. Observations in our own Solar System show us that water and other essential materials are continuously consumed via weathering (and other processes) and must be replenished from the planet’s interior via volcanic activity to maintain a biosphere. The surface models we are developing will be used to predict how gases and other materials will be trapped through weathering over time. Our interior models are designed to predict how much and what sort of materials will come to a planet’s surface through volcanic activity throughout its history.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 5.2 6.1
  • The Subglacial Biosphere – Insights Into Life-Sustaining Strategies in an Extraterrestrial Analog Environment

    Sub-ice environments are prevalent on Earth today and are likely to have been more prevalent the Earth’s past during episodes of significant glacial advances (e.g., snow-ball Earth). Numerous metabolic strategies have been hypothesized to sustain life in sub-ice environments. Common among these hypotheses is that they are all independent of photosynthesis, and instead rely on chemical energy. Recently, we demonstrated the presence of an active assemblage of methanogens in the subglacial environment of an Alpine glacier (Boyd et al., 2010). The distribution of methanogens is narrowly constrained, due in part to the energetics of the reactions which support this functional class of organism (namely carbon dioxide reduction with hydrogen and acetate fermentation). Methanogens utilize a number of metalloenzymes that have active site clusters comprised of a unique array of metals. During the course of this study, we identified other features that were suggestive of other active and potentially relevant metabolic strategies in the subglacial environment, such as nitrogen cycling. The goals of this project are 1) identifying a suite of biomarkers indicative of biological CH4 production 2). quantifying the flux of CH4 from sub-ice systems and 3). developing an understanding how life thrives at the thermodynamic limits of life. This project represents a unique extension of the ABRC and bridges the research goals of several nodes, namely the JPL-Icy Worlds team and the ASU-Follow the Elements team.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 2.2 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Metabolic Networks From Cells to Ecosystems

    Members of the Segre’ group use systems biology approaches to study the complex network of metabolic reactions that allow microbial cells to survive and reproduce under varying environmental conditions. The resource allocation problem that underlies these fundamental processes changes dramatically when multiple cells can compete or cooperate with each other, for example through metabolic cross-feeding. Through mathematical models of microbial ecosystems and computer simulations of spatially structured cell populations, the Segre’ team aims at understanding the environmental conditions and evolutionary processes that favor the emergence of multicellular organization in living systems.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 3.4 4.2 5.2 6.1
  • Stromatolites in the Desert: Analogs to Other Worlds

    In this task biologists go to field sites in Mexico to better understand the environmental effects on growth rates for freshwater stromatolites. Stromatolites are microbial mat communities that have the ability to calcify under certain conditions. They are believed to be an ancient form of life, that may have dominated the planet’s biosphere more than 2 billion years ago. Our work focuses on understanding these communities as a means of characterizing their metabolisms and gas outputs, for use in planetary models of ancient environments.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2
  • Viral Ecology and Evolution

    This project is aimed at probing the occurrence and evolution of archaeal viruses in the extreme environments in the thermal areas in Yellowstone National Park. Viruses are the most abundant life-like entities on the planet and are likely a major reservoir of genetic diversity for all life on the planet and these studies are aimed at providing insights into the role of viruses in the evolution of early life on Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2
  • The VPL Life Modules

    The VPL Life Modules involve development of simulation models of how biological processes – such as photosynthesis, breathing, and decay of organic materials – work on a planetary scale. When this is combined with the work of the atmospheric and planetary modeling teams, we are able simulate how these processes impact the atmosphere and climate of a planet. This information helps us understand how we might be able to detect whether or not a planet has life by looking at its atmosphere and surface. The Life Modules team has engaged in previous work coupling early Earth biogeochemistry and 1D models in the VPL’s suite of planetary models. Current work now focuses on the development of a land biosphere model coupled with a previously developed ocean biogeochemistry model and a 3D general circulation model (GCM). This terrestrial biosphere model is designed to simulate geographic distributions of life adapted to different climate zones, surface albedo, and carbon dioxide exchange and other biogenic gases with the atmosphere. These coupled models are first tested against Earth ground and satellite observations. A large data mining effort is now under way for the model of land-based ecosystem dynamics to uncover vegetation adaptations to climate that may be generalizable for both the Earth and alternative planetary environments.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.2 6.1 6.2 7.2
  • Interdisciplinary Studies of Earth’s Seafloor Biosphere

    The remote deep sediment-buried ocean basaltic crust is Earth’s largest aquifer and host to the least known and potentially one of the most significant biospheres on Earth. CORK observatories have provided unparalleled access to this remote environment. They are enabling groundbreaking research in crustal fluid flow, (bio)geochemical fluid/crustal alteration, and the emerging field of deep crustal biosphere

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Understanding Past Earth Environments

    For much of the history Earth, life on the planet existed in an environment very different than that of modern-day Earth. Thus, the ancient Earth represents a planet with a biosphere that is both dramatically different than the one in which we live, but that is also accessible to detailed study. As such, it serves as a model for what types of biospheres we may find on other planets. A particular focus of our work was on the “Early Earth” (formation through to about 500 million years ago), a timeframe poorly represented in the geological and fossil records but comprises the majority of Earth’s history. We have studied the composition and pressure of the ancient atmosphere; modeled the effects of clouds on such a planet; studied the sulfur, oxygen and nitrogen cycles; and explored atmospheric formation of molecules that were likely important to the origins of life on Earth.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 4.1 4.2 5.1 5.2 6.1
  • Stoichiometry of Life – Task 1 – Laboratory Studies in Biological Stoichiometry

    This project component involves a diverse set of studies of various microorganisms with which we are trying to better understand how living things use chemical elements (nitrogen, phosphorus, iron, etc) and how they cope, in a physiological sense, with shortages of such elements. For example, how does the “elemental recipe of life” change when an organism is starved for phosphorus or nitrogen or iron? Is this change similar for diverse species of microorganisms? Furthermore, how does an organism shift its patterns of gene expression when it is starved by various nutrients? This will help in interpreting studies of gene expression in natural environments, including extreme environments relevant to astrobiology.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2
  • Project 3B: In Situ S Isotope Studies in Archean-Proterozoic Sulfides

    Studies of sulfur isotopes constrain atmospheric and marine conditions in the Paleoproterozoic and Archean. We have developed capabilities for analysis of all four sulfur isotopes, including the rarest isotope (36-S) in situ by ion microprobe. In general sulfur 4 isotope data from Archean sulfides fall on the reference array for mass independent fractionation that was established by earlier bulk measurements. Small deviations from the array are resolved and likely result from biological or environmental forcings.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 2.1 4.1 5.2 6.1 7.1
  • Measuring Interdisciplinarity Within Astrobiology Research

    To integrate the work of the diverse scientists working on astrobiology, we have harvested and analyzed thousands of astrobiology documents to reveal areas of potential connection. This framework allows us to identify crossover documents that guide scientists quickly across vast interdisciplinary libraries, suggest productive interdisciplinary collaborations, and provide a metric of interdisciplinary science.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 2.1 2.2 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 4.1 4.2 4.3 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.1 7.2
  • Stoichiometry of Life, Task 2a: Field Studies – Yellowstone National Park

    Our stoichiometry studies are determining the relationships between the elemental compositions of organisms and the elemental compositions of their environments. We experimentally determine how changes in element availability (N, P, Fe) affect the community structure in hot spring ecosystems. We also use stable isotopes (15N and 13C) to trace which metabolisms actively utilize N and C and where in cells these elements are used. Recently, our team has shown for the first time that nitrogen (N2) fixation can occur at temperatures >85oC (Loiacono et al. 2012). We are also developing robust environmental sensors for hot springs that reveal chemical and thermal gradients at scales similar to the observed spatial distributions in hot spring microbial communities.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2 7.2
  • VPL Databases, Model Interfaces and the Community Tool

    The Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) develops computer models of planetary environments, including planets orbiting other stars (exoplanets) and provides a collaborative framework for scientists from many disciplines to coordinate their research. As part of this framework, VPL develops easier to use interfaces to its models, and provides model output datasets, so that they can be used by more researchers. We also collect and serve to the community the scientific data required as input to the models. These input data include spectra of stars, data files that tell us how atmospheric gases interact with incoming stellar radiation, and plant photosynthetic pigments. We also develop tools that allow users to search and manipulate the scientific input data. This year we provided Earth model datasets, new tools for searching the molecular spectroscopic database, and a new database of biological pigments. All of these products and others are published on the VPL Team Website at:

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 1.2 3.2 4.1 6.1 7.1 7.2
  • Project 3D: Constraints on Oxygen Contents in Earth’s Early Atmosphere and Implications for Evolution of Photosynthesis

    The oxidation state of the atmosphere and oceans on the early Earth remains controversial. Although it is accepted by many workers that the Archean atmosphere and ocean were anoxic, hematite in the 3.46 billion-year-old (Ga) Marble Bar Chert (MBC) from Pilbara Craton, NW Australia has figured prominently in arguments that the Paleoarchean atmosphere and ocean was fully oxygenated. In this study, we report the Fe isotope compositions and U concentrations of the MBC, and show that the samples have extreme heavy Fe isotope enrichment. Collectively, the Fe and U data indicate a reduced, Fe(II)-rich, U-poor environment in the Archean oceans at 3.46 billion years ago. Given the evidence for photosynthetic communities provided by broadly coeval stromatolites, these results suggests that an important photosynthetic pathway in the Paleoarchean oceans may have been anoxygenic photosynthetic Fe(II) oxidation.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 6.1 7.1 7.2
  • The Neoproterozoic Carbon Cycle

    We are studying the dynamics of the rise of oxygen during the Neoproterozoic (1 billion years ago to 543 million years ago) through culturing experiments, models and observations (see the progress report on the Unicellular Protists). We are testing the predictions of the following “anti-priming” hypothesis: if more easily degradable organic matter was degraded in oxic environments, this may have slowed down the degradation of organic matter in anaerobic environments and the overall degradation of organic matter, increasing the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere and the surface ocean. We are currently developing theoretical predictions and testing these ideas by laboratory enrichment cultures of anaerobic microbes that degrade complex substrates in the presence and absence of labile organic compounds.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 1.1 4.1 4.2 5.2 6.1 6.2
  • Stoichiometry of Life, Task 2b: Field Studies – Cuatro Cienegas

    Cuatro Cienegas is a unique biological preserve in México (state of Coahuila) in which there is striking microbial diversity, potentially related to extreme scarcity of phosphorus. We aim to understand this relationship via field sampling of biological and chemical characteristics and a series of enclosure and whole-pond fertilization experiments. These studies help in identifying the element signatures that microbes develop when key nutrient elements are scarce. Furthermore, the chemical and physical environments of the desert aquatic habitats at Cuatro Cienegas are analogous to those that may have existed on Mars during times in its past when it was losing its own surface water. Thus, these data may help in interpreting information about element signatures obtained from the Curiosity rover as it explores Gale Crater.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 5.1 5.2 5.3 6.1 6.2
  • Timescales of Events in the Evolution and Maintenance of Complex Life

    We are using natural occurring isotopes produced by long-lived radioactive decay to: provide high-precision dates on geological and biological processes and to trace the geochemical evolution of the oceans during key times in Earth history.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 5.3 6.1
  • Stoichiometry of Life – Task 2c – Field Studies – Other

    We continued analyses of organic matter in samples of porewaters from a deep ocean hydrothermal mound; concluded a study on element acquisition by biological soil crusts, and initiated a new study that may shed light on a recent hypothesis that floating pumice may have been a site for the origin of life. In this new study, the eruption of the Puyehue / Cordon Caulle volcano on 4 June 2011 near Bariloche, Argentina, provided a unique opportunity to investigate floating pumice as a unique habitat for microbial life. To assess this, we sampled floating pumice from various regional lakes to assess the make-up of the associated microbial communities using genomic techniques and to evaluate the use of key elements (nitrogen, phosphorus) by these microbes using chemical and isotopic methods.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 5.2 5.3 6.1
  • Unicellular Protists of the Neoproterozoic

    We investigated 1) how microbial processes shape some sedimentary rocks, 2) how microbial processes influence the isotopic composition of sulfur-rich minerals that are used to understand the evolution of oxygen and the cycling of carbon in the past, 3) searched for fossils of organisms that lived between 716 and 635 million years ago, surviving times when ice covered entire oceans, even at the equator and 4) used these fossils, recovered from limestone rocks, to understand the cycling of carbon during this unusual time.

    ROADMAP OBJECTIVES: 4.1 4.2 5.1 6.1 7.1