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2014 Annual Science Report

Reporting  |  SEP 2013 – DEC 2014

Carl Pilcher
NAI Interim Director: Carl Pilcher
Letter from the Director: 2014 NAI Annual Report

We are very pleased to publish the NAI 2014 Annual Report covering the period September 1, 2013 to December 31, 2014. A major activity of the year was the 7th competition for new research teams. This competition differed from the past in that the proposing teams were required to structure their proposals around a single compelling question in astrobiology. This led to a group of seven new teams that are each extremely well integrated as well as highly interdisciplinary. The new teams, and their compelling questions, are:

Rock-Powered Life: Revealing Mechanisms of Energy Flow from the Lithosphere to the Biosphere, PI: Alexis Templeton, University of Colorado at Boulder.
How do the mechanisms of low temperature water/rock reactions control the distribution, activity, and biochemistry of life in rock-hosted systems?

Alternative Earths: Explaining Persistent Inhabitation on a Dynamic Early Earth, PI: Timothy Lyons, University of California at Riverside.
How has Earth remained persistently inhabited through most of its dynamic history, and how do those varying states of inhabitation manifest in the atmosphere?

Changing Planetary Environments and the Fingerprints of Life, PI: Nathalie Cabrol, SETI Institute.
How do we identify and cache the most valuable samples for a sample return mission from Mars?

Reliving the Past: Experimental Evolution of Major Transitions in the History of Life, PI: Frank Rosenzweig, University of Montana at Missoula.
What forces bring about major transitions in the evolution of biocomplexity?

Icy Worlds: Astrobiology at the Rock-Water Interface and Beyond, PI: Isik Kanik, JPL.
How can geochemical disequilibria drive the emergence of metabolism and ultimately generate observable signatures on icy worlds?

The Evolution of Prebiotic Chemical Complexity and the Organic Inventory of Protoplanetary Disks and Primordial Planets, PI: Scott Sandford, NASA Ames Research Center.
What are the chemical processes at every stage in the evolution of organic chemical complexity, from quiescent regions of dense molecular clouds, through all stages of cloud collapse, protostellar disk and planet formation, and ultimately to the materials that rain down on planets – and how do these depend on environmental parameters like the ambient radiation field and the abundance of water?

Origin and Evolution of Organics and Water in Planetary Systems, PI: Michael Mumma, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
Did delivery of exogenous organics and water enable the emergence and evolution of life? Why is Earth wet and alive?

The focused character of the new teams opens up new modes and opportunities for inter-team collaboration as well as collaboration with the larger national and international astrobiology communities. For example, the Rock-Powered Life team led by Alexis Templeton at the University of Colorado is focused on serpentinization, a geological process in which water and iron/magnesium-rich rock interact at low temperature, releasing chemical energy that can power living systems. Many other NAI teams are interested in serpentinization as well, for example, its possible occurrence on Mars and Europa and its possible role in the origin of life. Serpentinization is thus a natural organizing theme for integrating research across the current NAI teams and with the larger community. There are others that will be discussed in next year’s annual report.

NAI began laying a foundation for integrating research on serpentinizing systems back in 2010 with a Director’s Discretionary Fund (DDF) award to Dawn Cardace of the University of Rhode Island. That award supported study of land-based subsurface serpentinization through drilling in the California Coast Range Ophiolite terrane. That study reached fruition in the past year with the launching of the Coast Range Ophiolite Microbial Observatory (CROMO) website. Once data has been processed from the 2014 summer field work, this website will link directly to the CROMO database, enabling the community to access and query the database for their own research.

The DDF is just one NAI mechanism for seeding new research. Another is Focus Groups (currently being transitioned to Science Working Groups). A particularly good example of this is the Thermodynamics, Disequilibria, and Evolution Focus Group led by Laurie Barge of JPL and Eugenio Simoncini of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany. In a series of meeting being held around the world, this Focus Group is bringing together researchers interested in the fundamental driving forces behind the origin of life and the maintenance of habitability. One of the outcomes has been an ongoing collaboration between members of the JPL Icy Worlds team and the team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that is seeking a “Universal Biology.” This collaboration has resulted in a number of publications on the role of disequilibrium in the origin of life. The meetings also inspired a new collaboration between the JPL team and a group at the MPI in Jena.

Sometimes just being part of the NAI and being exposed to new communities and ideas leads to outcomes that wouldn’t have occurred otherwise. One such outcome is the Life Investigation for Enceladus (LIFE) mission concept developed in collaboration by the JPL Icy Worlds team and the Arizona State University team (now emeritus). This relatively low-cost fly-by sample return mission concept has since influenced planning for the Europa Clipper mission and remains one of the possible ways to follow up on the remarkable discoveries of the Cassini mission.

Another such outcome is community use of the GeoBioCell assembly developed by the University of Illinois team. This innovative microfluidic device enables the creation of a compartmentalized synthetic ecological system in which microbes and minerals can be introduced with precise experimenter control over nutrient flow and gradients. Plans are being developed for several NAI teams to apply this technology to research related to their original proposals, while at the same time bringing these teams together around an overlapping set of questions.

As important as is NAI’s goal of stimulating interdisciplinary research that otherwise wouldn’t have occurred, NAI goes beyond this in pursuing all aspects of its mission statement. A summary of some of these other activities is presented in the NAI Central section of this Annual Report. For example, NAI’s goal to “train the next generation of astrobiologists” takes the form of a wide range of opportunities for early career researchers. These include the annual Astrobiology Graduate Student Conference and Research Focus Group, both organized by and for graduate students and postdocs with NAI support; summer and winter schools; and research support opportunities such as Early Career Collaboration awards and the Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology, the latter a joint program with the American Philosophical Society. Information about all of these programs can be found on the Careers and Employment page of our website and in the NAI Central section of this Report. Early career researchers also have a dedicated NAI virtual seminar series in which they can present their research results to the NAI and the larger astrobiology community.

Other highlights of the past year discussed in the NAI Central section of this Report include the selection of 4 Fellows in the Minority Institution Research Support (MIRS) Program; the selection of 9 new postdocs in the Astrobiology element of the NASA Postdoctoral Program (NPP); the completion of Arsev Aydınoğlu’s study of NAI collaborative practices; and the two-day symposium at the Library of Congress organized by Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Astrobiology Chair Steven Dick on Preparing for Discovery: A Rational Approach to the Impact of Finding Microbial, Complex, or Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.

Finally, we congratulate NAI researchers who have been recognized with major awards during the past year. Sean Solomon, formerly PI of the Carnegie Institute of Science team and now Associate Director at The Earth Institute of Columbia University was awarded the nation’s highest scientific honor, the National Medal of Science. Moh El-Naggar of the University of Southern California team received a prestigious Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE). Ariel Anbar, former PI of the Arizona State University team, was selected a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Professor and elected President-Elect of the Biogeosciences Section of the American Geophysical Union. Jack Lissauer of NASA Ames received the Center’s H. Julian Allen Award. We congratulate them as well as other members of the NAI community who have been recently honored.

Please explore this Annual Report and the NAI website for more details and the latest news. We welcome your feedback on how the NAI can continue serving the astrobiology community.

Carl Pilcher, Interim Director
July 2015