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2015 Annual Science Report

University of Colorado, Boulder Reporting  |  JAN 2015 – DEC 2015

Rock Powered Life: Education and Communications

Project Summary

The central theme of the Rock Powered Life research effort is to define how, where and when water/rock interactions release energy and how this energy is harvested to support microbial communities. These studies are of fundamental importance for improving understanding of how microbial life was supported on early Earth. Moreover, since similar reactions can be expected on any rocky planet with liquid water, these studies provide new constraints for predicting the distribution of life on other planetary bodies.

The focus of our team – rock-hosted microbial ecosystems that are dependent on chemical rather than light energy – provides novel avenues to engage the next generation of astrobiologists and to disseminate knowledge to the broader public. Here we describe current and ongoing efforts by members of Rock Powered Life that are aimed at improving engagement and training in astrobiology. Of particular relevance are efforts to provide opportunities to provide underrepresented high school and undergraduate students hands on training opportnities in astrobiology-focused studies. We also describe advancements in Rock Powered Life’s digital-based information sharing technologies. Through these integrated team efforts we aim to attract and train future generations of astrobiologists and to provide greater access to the current knowledge base with which to understand the potential for life elsewhere on other planetary bodies.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
1 Publication
3 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

In Year 1, members of the Rock Powered Life team successfully recruited postdoctoral scholars (3), graduate students (14), and one technician to further the research, educational and communications goals of the project. Rock Powered Life postdoctoral scholars and graduate students come from a variety of educational backgrounds and will serve in both inter- and intra- field and laboratory research. As such, these individuals represent a robust mechanism of technology and data sharing within Rock Powered Life and across the broader NASA Astrobiology Institute. Active recruitment for undergraduate students to fill training opportunities under the mentorship of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars is currenly underway at our numerous laboratories.

In addition to formal undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral training, members of Rock Powered Life are committed to attracting students to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) careers, in particular as they relate to astrobiology. Collaborator Boyd has continued his commitment to the Montana Apprenticeship Program (MAP), a six-week, science and engineering summer camp for Montana Native American and other underrepresented minority high school students from Montana. The goal of MAP is to inspire young people to pursue college degrees and increase the number of Native American and other underrepresented high school students entering the fields of STEM. Members of the Boyd lab hosted two students in June/July of 2015, one from the Cheyenne tribe and one from the Salish Kootenai tribe. Both students were provided projects that focused on the isolation and initial characterization of thermophiles, which were presented as a part of our undergraduate research celebration. Nearly 100% of MAP students graduate from high school and the majority of these students enter a four-year college/university immediately upon high school graduation. Through continued conversations with students, we strive to attract these students back to our laboratories for continuation of their astrobiology focused research projects.

Rock Powered Life scientists are also opening up their labs to create opportunities to engage elementary and middle school age students in astrobiology-related science. Rock Powered Life scientists partnered with the Museum of the Rockies summer camp program to provide laboratory exercises that expose students to the widespread occurrence and diversity of microorganisms on our planet. Three, two hour laboratory immersion experiences allowed students the opportunity to learn to use microscopes, cultivate organisms, and expand their understanding of microbial life. Discussions between project leader Boyd and high school students were used to focus findings of these studies on the need to be aseptic when we perform space-studies in order to ensure that we a) do not contaminate other planets and b) do not compromise our ability to identify indigenous life forms.

In addition to training opportunities, Rock Powered Life team members have been reaching out to members of the public while working in the field, at national meetings (e.g., Geologic Society of America, Goldschmidt International Geochemistry Conference, AbSciCon, American Geophysical Union Meeting and numerous Gordon Research Conferences). We also have a strong web presence at our website ( – our primary information site) developed and maintained by Co-Project Lead Mayhew) as well as within the NASA Astrobiology Institute website (

A critical element of our team communication is our monthly newsletter that is emailed to team members and collaborators. It is also readily accessible on our website. Assembled, designed and constructed by Co-Project Lead Mayhew, this informative newsletter records monthly activities and achievements of all Rock Powered Life team members. The newsletter is a resource for our team, members of the NAI community and the broader general public who take interest in what we do. An example can be found at:

With the granting of the Rock Powered Life project from the NAI to our respective institutions, a number of press-releases and related materials were published by our host institutions. In addition, PI Templeton was present for a press conference at the 2015 AbSciCon meeting in Chicago, Illinois ( These announcements are on our RPL website and a few examples include:
In addition, a feature story on the Rock Powered Life project was published in Mines Magazine, a publicaiton for 50,000 Colorado School of Mines alumni:

The RPL team members have placed emphasis on the creation of opportunities for RPL graduate students to share their science. For example, we hosted a Graduate Student Roundtable during the December 2016 RPL monthly video conference for graduate students to share what they are learning on their specific projects, and we will host more in the future. This forum presents the opportunity for more senior RPL graduate students to present the current state of their research while early career graduate students were given the opportunity to introduce themselves and their research goals to the broader RPL team. For some of them, it was their first ‘professional’ talk as a graduate student. All students gained experience in presenting their ideas and results to a broad audience that consisted of both experts in their fields and their graduate student peers. In addition, this year several RPL students presented at AbSciCon in Chicago, and as the RPL project continues onward, students will have the opportunity to present their work at the AbGradCon 2016 to be hosted in Boulder, as well as the annual meetings of the American Society for Microbiology, the Geological Society of America and the American Geophysical Union.

    Lisa Mayhew Lisa Mayhew
    Project Investigator
    John Spear John Spear
    Project Investigator
    Eric Boyd

    William Brazelton

    Dawn Cardace

    Shuhei Ono

    Matthew Schrenk

    Everett Shock

    Alexis Templeton

    Masako Tominaga

    Objective 3.2
    Origins and evolution of functional biomolecules

    Objective 4.1
    Earth's early biosphere.

    Objective 4.2
    Production of complex life.

    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