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  1. NAI Director's Discretionary Fund

    The NAI Director has a limited Discretionary Fund (DDF) to support projects outside the scope of research originally funded through the NAI teams. These activities have included such things as specialized instrumentation, higher-risk projects, field expeditions, the application of ground-based research to space missions, or targeted workshops. Priorities and areas of focus have been specified in a particular year, such as impact to NASA space missions or collaboration among the Divisions of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The Lead Investigator for a proposal must be affiliated with a current NAI team, but the proposal can include collaborators not associated with the Institute. This facilitates collaboration and expedites the flow of funds. The current primary objective of the DDF is to enable new cross-team and interdisciplinary collaborations supporting the integration of NAI’s 12 research teams.

    Please return to this page for information on future DDF application requirements and deadlines.

    Questions about the NAI DDF should be directed either the NAI Director, Penny Boston ( or Deputy Director, Ed Goolish (

    2015 Selections for the NAI Director’s Discretionary Fund

    Catalytic Diversity at the Emergence of Metabolism: Hydrothermal Carbon Dioxide Reduction on Fe/Ni-Sulfide Catalysts
    Lead Investigator: Laura Barge (JPL Icy Worlds Team)
    Co-Investigators: Pablo Sobron (SETI Institute Team), Michael Russell (JPL Icy Worlds Team), Yuichiro Ueno (Earth-Life Science Institute), Shawn McGlynn (Tokyo Metropolitan University)

    This proposal aims to simulate and quantify the emergence of catalyst diversity for carbon fixation in prebiotic alkaline hydrothermal vents. The objectives are to 1) test the reduction of CO2 on hydrothermal minerals at 70°C; 2) test addition of nickel—a significant component for CO2 reduction and metabolism; and 3) test the effectiveness of adding organics to investigate their ability to affect catalyst diversity and functionality. This proposal strongly supports the serpentinization synergy theme by integrating the research of JPL Icy Worlds and SETI Institute Fingerprints of Life NAI teams; the new NAI Biosignature Detection and Serpentinization Working Groups; NAI’s international partner organization the Japan Astrobiology Consortium through the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Tokyo, Japan; and the new ELSI Origins Network. The proposal also supports two early career Co-Investigators.

    Low Pressure Serpentinization Reactions on Mars
    Lead Investigator: Adrian Brown (SETI Institute Team)
    Co-Investigators: Alexis Templeton, Lisa Mayhew (University of Colorado Boulder, Rock-Powered Life Team), Michael Russell (JPL Icy Worlds Team)

    This proposal will simulate the formation of talc-carbonate assemblages on Mars, similar to deposits detected at Nili Fossae. The presence of talc in association with carbonate is particularly suggestive of serpentinization with a medium to high degree of CO2 in the reacting fluid. The study will focus on tantalizing clues that talc and carbonate may form together in the shallow (10s of meters) Martian crust. This type of system would have high astrobiological potential and be relatively accessible to in situ investigation. This project creates a bridge between the Serpentinizing Systems Working Group and the Biosignature Detection Working Group. The collaboration between three NAI teams has mission relevance and forges a new collaboration between synergy working groups. The proposal supports a post-doc who will work with Dr. Templeton.

    Biosignature Detection with the Raman Instrument on ExoMars: Enhancing Mission Readiness Through Analyses of Analogue and Synthetic Samples
    Lead Investigator: Alfonso Davila (SETI Institute Team)
    Co-investigators: Pablo Sobrón (SETI Institute Team), Mary Beth Wilhelm (Georgia Tech)
    Collaborators: Fernando Rull Pérez and Victor Parro García (Centro de Astrobiologia), Linda Jahnke (NASA Ames), James Wray (Georgia Tech)

    This proposal will critically evaluate the capability of the ExoMars Raman Laser Spectrometer (RLS) to detect organic compounds and biomarkers (lipids and hydrocarbons) in biologically lean Mars analogue samples, by 1) building a Raman spectral library of hydrocarbons and lipid biomarkers using analytical standards and 2) analyzing soil samples from the hyperarid core of the Atacama Desert. The proposal strengthens research ties between the NAI SETI Institute team and NAI’s international partner the Centro de Astrobioloía (CAB) of Madrid, Spain. This new NAI DDF project provides a unique opportunity to connect NAI SETI Institute team members with flight instrument teams and together derive knowledge that can be used for the search for life on Mars for all life-seeking missions, particularly ExoMars and Mars 2020. The proposal supports a graduate student at Georgia Tech.

    Integrating the Geochemical and Genomic History of the Rise of Oxygen on Earth
    Lead Investigator: Greg Fournier (MIT Team)
    Co-investigator: Tim Lyons (NAI Alternative Earths Team, University of California Riverside)

    The work proposed will investigate evidence for the history of oxygen within the genes and genomes of organismal lineages that persisted through the Great Oxygenation event and the Neoproterozoic event. The investigators propose to study the rate and pattern of the acquisition and loss of genes coding for oxygen-associated enzymes in diverse microbial groups over time, as a proxy for changing oxygen levels on geological timescales. This bioinformatics approach will strongly complement current studies of the rise of oxygen being conducted by the NAI Alternative Earths Team at UC Riverside by providing independent support for specific hypotheses, as well as resolving several currently ambiguous narratives. The project brings together the Evolution of Complex Life Synergy Group with Co-I Lyons and the UC Riverside NAI team and provides support for an early career researcher.

    Investigating the Geobiology of Pilot Valley Basin, Utah: A Mars Analog Study of a Groundwater-dominated Paleolake Basin
    Lead Investigator: Kennda Lynch (University of Montana Team, Colorado School of Mines)
    Co-investigators: Frank Rosenzwieg (University of Montana Team), James Wray (SETI Institute Team, Georgia Tech), John Spear (University of Colorado Boulder Team, Colorado School of Mines), Briony Horgan (Purdue University), Jennifer Hanley (Lowell Observatory), Jennifer Biddle (University of Delaware), Kevin Rey (Brigham Young University) Andrew Jackson (Texas Tech)

    This proposal will develop a comprehensive understanding of transitional habitable environments through a collection of studies that build on previous work, in-depth geochemical and biological analysis of collected samples, and characterization of Visible Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (VNIR) spectra from simulated mixed mineral matrices. This work will create a synergy between the SETI Institute, University of Montana, and CU-Boulder astrobiology teams. It will also bring new investigators from Purdue, Lowell Observatory, and BYU into the astrobiology community. The lead investigator, Dr. Lynch, is a postdoctoral researcher.

    Determining the Composition of Amphiphiles in the Organic Residues Produced from the UV Irradiation of Astrophysical Ices
    Lead Investigator: Michel Nuevo (NASA Ames Team, Bay Area Environmental Research Institute)
    Co-investigators: Scott Sandford (NASA Ames Team), Roger Summons (MIT Team)

    Self-assembling vesicles spontaneously form when the organic fraction of carbonaceous chondrite meteorites are dissolved. Laboratory simulations have demonstrated that all the organics found in meteorites can be formed from the ultraviolet irradiation of ice mixtures. This proposal aims to carry out the first systematic analysis of laboratory ice irradiation organic residues to determine the nature and composition of the vesicle-forming amphiphilic compounds present. The results will be discussed in the context of the origin of life. This foundational proposal brings together two NAI teams at Ames and MIT, with likely extension to the Goddard team, and fosters a unique synergy within the Planetary Inventory of Organics and Water and the Origin of Life theme.

    Field Campaign: Spectropolarimetry of Primitive Phototrophs as Global Surface Biosignatures
    Lead Investigator: Mary “Niki” Parenteau (VPL Team, SETI Institute)
    Co-Investigators: William Sparks (VPL Team, Space Telescope Science Institute), Charles Telesco (University of Florida), Thomas Germer (National Institute of Standards and Technology), C.H.L. Lucas Patty (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam), Frank Robb (University of Maryland), Victoria Meadows (VPL Team, University of Washington)

    This proposal seeks to characterize surface biosignatures associated with anoxygenic phototrophs and cyanobacteria. Circular polarization spectra of environmental samples of microbial mats containing cyanobacteria and anoxygenic phototrophs will be measured in a one-week field campaign in Yellowstone National Park using a newly developed CubeSat-scale spectropolarimeter. This proposal is a collaboration between the NAI VPL team and a Dutch group, including an early career scientist. The project is relevant to the Habitable Planetary States, Evolution of Microbial Life, and Astronomical Biosignatures synergy theme. In addition, use of flight relevant instrumentation, including a newly developed spectropolarimeter, strengthens the project. The co-investigators include VPL and SETI team members along with many co-Is not formerly associated with the NASA astrobiology community, which may lead to new institutional involvements.

    Did the Proterozoic Earth have remotely detectable O3, CH4 and N2O? Implications for Terrestrial Exoplanet Analogs and the Search for Life Outside the Solar System
    Lead Investigator: Edward Schwieterman (VPL Team, University of Washington)
    Co-investigators: Victoria Meadows (VPL Team, University of Washington), Timothy Lyons (Alternative Earths Team, University of California Riverside), Shawn Domagal-Goldman (VPL Team, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), Noah Planavsky (Alternative Earths Team, Yale), Chris Reinhard, (Alternative Earths Team, Georgia Tech), Giada Arney (VPL Team, University of Washington), Tyler Robinson (VPL Team, University of California Santa Cruz)

    Using proven coupled climate-photochemical models to create a small suite of standard, hypothetical chemical profiles for the Proterozoic Earth (0.8-2.5 Ga), this proposal intends to evaluate the detectability of the biogenic gases CH4, N2O, and O2/O3 during that eon. The simultaneous detection of these gases would have signaled a strong disequilibrium biosignature to a distant observer. The research conducted under this proposal will allow us to apply knowledge of the ancient Earth to the study of exoplanets, and provide a foundation for further collaboration between the Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) and Alternative Earths NAI teams. The proposal provides a strong foundation for the Habitable Planetary States, the Evolution of Microbial Life, and their Astronomical Biosignatures synergy theme. This work will contribute to the training of an early career astrobiologist by funding a graduate student/transitioning postdoctoral scientist who will receive interdisciplinary training at the nexus between two NAI teams.

    Probing the Isotope Systematics of Low-Temperature Serpentinites
    Lead Investigator: Alexis Templeton (Rock-Powered Life Team, University of Colorado Boulder)
    Co-Investigators: Eric Ellison and Lisa Mayhew (Rock-Powered Life Team), Clark Johnson and John Valley (Wisconsin Astrobiology Research Consortium Team)

    This proposal will: 1) develop standards for microanalysis of δ18O in serpentine and brucite minerals formed in serpentinizing reactions under different temperature/fluid regimes, and 2) carry out initial isotopic exchange experiments to gain mechanistic insight into the formation of iron‐bearing brucite and serpentine through isotopic tracers of Mg, Fe, Si, and O. This is a foundational proposal in its introduction of isotopic techniques to the study of the biogeology of serpentinizing systems. The outcome will provide a framework for cross-team investigations in the Serpentinizing Systems Synergy group with implications for other NAI teams and projects. The proposal funds an early career scientist.

    2012 Selections for the NAI Director’s Discretionary Fund

    Proposal Title: Interdisciplinary Research Metrics in Astrobiology (IRMA)
    Lead Investigator: Rich Gazan, University of Hawaii Team
    Co-Investigators: Lisa Miller and Mike Gowanlock, University of Hawaii Team

    Publication: Unsupervised classification and visualization of unstructured text for the support of interdisciplinary collaboration Lisa J. Miller, Rich Gazan, Susanne Still, Proceedings of the 17th ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work & social computing, Pages 1033-1042, doi>10.1145/2531602.2531666

    Publication: Identifying Crossover Documents in an Interdisciplinary Research Environment Rich Gazan, Proceedings of the iConference 2013, (pp. 457-460). doi:10.9776/13254

    Publication: Assessing researcher interdisciplinarity: a case study of the University of Hawaii NASA Astrobiology Institute Michael Gowanlock, Rich Gazan, Scientometrics January 2013, Volume 94, Issue 1, pp 133-161

    We propose a six-month collaboration between UHNAI and NAI Central to assess the extent to which publications by NAI researchers demonstrate actual and potential interdisciplinarity, and how their work reflects the goals of the Astrobiology Roadmap. We will refine and extend the Astrobiology Integrative Research Framework (AIRFrame) component developed by the UHNAI team, which uses data mining techniques to cluster research publications and NAI report documents to identify implicit interdisciplinary connections, develop a scalable process to streamline data harvesting from NAI Central, compare clustering output with the goals of the Astrobiology Roadmap, and integrate a social scientific component to better understand some of the barriers researchers face to interdisciplinary work. Anticipated benefits include the development of a scalable, data-driven method of identifying and measuring interdisciplinary research across all NAI teams.

    Proposal Title: Collaborative Exploration of Laguna Verde (Azufral), an early Mars-analog Crater Lake in Colombia
    Lead Investigator: Christopher H. House, Penn State Astrobiology Research Center Team
    Co-Investigators: Maria M. Zambrano, CorpoGen, Colombia, Jorge Bueno, Instituto de Astrobiologia Colombia, Martha Cepeda, CorpoGen, Regina Wilpiszeski, PSARC graduate student

    We propose an international collaborative investigation of the molecular biosignatures of microbial life in the Azufral crater lakes (Laguna Verde and its non-acidic neighboring lakes). At the centerpiece of our research plan we propose to use advanced genomic technology to study the Laguna Verde microbiota throughout the lake. This project will (1) measure aqueous geochemical parameters of the lake, mapping out the chemistry of the basin; (2) identify a high number of DNA-based signatures of acidic and volcanic life; (3) integrate results with measured geochemistry; and (4) involve international collaborators in obtaining and analyzing the results, including both students and career scientists.

    Proposal Title: Processing of Enceladus’ frozen surface by ionizing radiation
    Lead Investigator: Ralf I. Kaiser, University of Hawaii Team
    Co-Investigators: Dr. Sergio Pilling, Dr. Diana P. P. Andrade and Alexandre Bergantini de Souza, Universidade do Vale do Paraíba, UNIVAP, Brazil

    Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, is covered by ice and snow. The surface has temperatures from 60 to 160 K, and mainly consists of H2O, CO2, N2 and CH4, as recently seen by NASA´s Cassini space probe from Enceladus’ gas and dust emission. The molecules on Enceledus’ surface are continuously processed by ionizing radiation such as VUV photons and energetic electrons. This induces chemical changes and leads to the formation of complex molecules, some of them with large importance from an astrobiological point of view, such as amino acids and nucleobases. The objective of this research is to reproduce the physical-chemical changes induced by ionizing radiation on the surface of Enceladus to probe and quantify the formation of complex molecules in this moon. The experiment will be performed at the W. M. Keck Research Laboratory in Astrochemistry at the University of Hawaii of Manoa. The chemical analysis will be performed in the solid state via three complementary methods (infrared spectroscopy, Raman spectroscopy, UVVIS spectroscopy) and in the gas phase via reflectron time-of-flight (Re-TOF) mass spectroscopy upon photoionization of the sublimed products. It is expected that this research will clarify crucial chemical processes involving prebiotic molecules on this moon, placing important pieces in the puzzle of the origin of life in the Solar System.

    Proposal Title: Evaluating Atmospheric Oxygen Levels During the Great Oxidation Event
    Lead Investigator: Lee Kump, Penn State Astrobiology Research Center Team

    Publication: Hypothesized link between Neoproterozoic greening of the land surface and the establishment of an oxygen-rich atmosphere Lee Kump PNAS

    The trajectory of Earth’s oxygenation, from the anoxic world of the Archean to the highly oxygenated atmosphere and ocean of today, is highly unclear. Whether stepwise or monotonically increasing, most theories have atmospheric oxygen buildup progressing unidirectionally. Recent discoveries by our group and others indicate, however, that there may have been an oxygen “overshoot” in the Paleoproterozoic (ca. 2 billion years ago) to levels that may have exceeded modern. The work proposed here is designed to demonstrate that mildly metamorphosed core materials that we collected with NAI co-support from Fennoscandia, spanning the “Great Oxidation Event,” can be convincingly interpreted in terms of the timing and extent of oxidative weathering, and thus, of the level of atmospheric oxygen during the putative “overshoot.” We will then use these preliminary results to bolster a larger proposal to conduct a more comprehensive study of this geological repository of what may be the seminal event in Earth history.

    Proposal Title: Searching Protein Sequence Space for Primordial Redox Activities
    Lead Investigator: Burckhard Seelig, University of Minnesota, NASA Ames Research Center Team
    Co-Investigators: John Peters, Tim Minton, Robert Szilagyi, Astrobiology Biogeocatalysis Research Center, Montana State University, Martin Schoonen, Astrobiology Biogeocatalysis Research Center, Stony Brook University

    Publication: Structure and dynamics of a primordial catalytic fold generated by in vitro evolution Fa-An Chao, Aleardo Morelli, John C Haugner III, Lewis Churchfield, Leonardo N Hagmann, Lei Shi, Larry R Masterson, Ritimukta Sarangi, Gianluigi Veglia, & Burckhard Seelig Nature Chemical Biology 9, 81–83 (2013) doi:10.1038/nchembio.1138

    Deep phylogenetic work provides fundamental insights into what biological processes were likely to have been present in early life. Certainly the universality of metabolic oxidation-reduction reactions suggests that these processes would be a hallmark of early life and thus represent a barrier on the path to the origin of life. Although fruitful in terms of insights into understanding aspects of the energy metabolism of early life, the features of extant biology tell us very little about the initial steps in the emergence of the protein based catalytic functionalities that facilitated these processes. Our main goal is to initiate a new collaboration to join forces across two NAI teams. We will combine the in vitro enzyme evolution technology pioneered by Seelig and coworkers of the NASA Ames team with the long standing expertise in biological oxidation reduction reactions of Peters’ group of the Montana State University Astrobiology Biogeocatalysis Research Center to evolve metal-based redox catalysts from random peptide libraries. The studies will provide fundamental insights into the first steps of the nesting and tuning of metal ions and metal clusters to achieve oxidation-reduction potentials that support reactions relevant to early life. We will use a simple nucleotide dependent oxidation of an alcohol as a selectable reaction and search for novel enzymes from random peptide libraries in the presence of different metal ions and counter ions. In addition, we will explore possible synergies between redox active mineral surfaces and polypeptide catalysis with the focus on early life scenarios.

    Proposal Title: Examining the Habitability of High Priority Target Star Systems for Direct Imaging of Exo-Earths
    Lead Investigator: Margaret Turnbull, Global Science Institute, ASU team
    Co-Investigator: Patrick Young, Arizona State University

    Publication: Stellar Abundances in the Solar Neighborhood: The Hypatia Catalog Natalie R. Hinkel, F.X. Timmes, Patrick A. Young, Michael D. Pagano, and Margaret C. Turnbull Published 2014 August 18 The Astronomical Journal, Volume 148, Number 3

    We propose to conduct habitability case studies for individual nearby stars identified as the highest priority targets in direct imaging searches for habitable exo-Earths. For the highest priority stars (according to shortest required exposure times and greatest habitable zone visibility), we will examine factors affecting both suitability for life and detectability of Earth-like planets in the habitable zone. We will specifically examine elemental abundances, companions, stability of the habitable zone, and system ages. Turnbull will work with Prof. Patrick Young (ASU) to use abundance data to assess habitable zone location and continuous habitability. Turnbull will also assess the likely impact of the background field and (in the case of binaries) stray light on detectability of exo-Earths. This exercise will have the dual benefits of (1) providing the astrobiology community and world with a more detailed understanding of the prospects for life among the sun’s nearest and brightest neighbors and (2) assessing the capability of future missions to detect and spectrally characterize habitable worlds.

    2011 Selections for the NAI Director’s Discretionary Fund

    Proposal Title: Tilt-A-Worlds: Chaotic Obliquities and the Limits of the Habitable Zone
    Lead Investigator: Rory Barnes, U Washington, VPL Team at the U Washington
    Co-Investigators: John Armstrong, Weber State U, VPL Team at the U Washington. Shahn Domagal-Goldman (NASA HQ)

    The proposal seeks to couple orbital models to climate models to perform interdisciplinary, self-consistent investigations of these planets’ habitability. These models can help interpret observations of new exoplanets, extend the habitable zone, and help prioritize objects for direct spectroscopic follow-up. The investigators will release their coupled code to the community so that as exoplanets are discovered, their potential habitability can be quantified.

    Proposal Title: Characterization of Soluble Organics in Carbonaceous Meteorites by Ultrahigh Resolution Mass Spectrometry and Isotope Analysis
    Lead Investigator: Michael Callahan, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Team
    Co-Investigators: Conel Alexander, CIW Team, H. James Cleaves, CIW and Georgia Tech Teams

    Carbonaceous chondrites (CCs) are known to contain a complex suite of soluble and insoluble organic molecules that seem to share a common genetic heritage with organic matter in interplanetary dust particles and comets. To better understand the origin of organic matter in CCs and to better evaluate the importance of exogenous delivery to prebiotic chemistry, a more complete understanding of the organic inventory of CCs is necessary. The investigators will use ultrahigh resolution mass spectrometry (UHRMS) with high throughput screening methods to examine the soluble organic matter in a large set of CCs. This will be coordinated with bulk elemental and isotopic measurements of (1) the soluble and insoluble organic matter, and (2) the bulk meteorites before and after leaching. The investigators will also explore the possibility of using the total soluble organics as a fast and simple method of meteorite classification.

    Proposal Title: Following a novel Earth biota: microbial succession and nutrient use on floating pumice spherules deposited by the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcanic eruption
    Lead Investigator: James Elser, Arizona State U Team
    Co-Investigators: Janet Siefert, Rice University and Arizona State Team

    Publication: Community structure and biogeochemical impacts of microbial life on floating pumice. Elser JJ, Bastidas Navarro M, Corman JR, Emick H, Kellom M, Laspoumaderes C, Lee ZM, Poret-Peterson AT, Balseiro E, Modenutti B. 2015. Applied and Environmental Microbiology 81:1542–1549. doi:10.1128/AEM.03160-14.

    The Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcanic eruption on 4 June 2011 (and ongoing) deposited large amounts of ash and pumice in the area. Especially notable for astrobiology is the development of extensive islands of floating pumice spherules in regional lakes, including Lake Nahuel Haupi, the region’s largest. These spherules, initially sterile, will be colonized by microbes over time but ecological succession on such novel substrates has never been described. The investigators will characterize the development of these communities using state-of-the-art DNA sequencing techniques (Ion Torrent) and use modern isotope techniques to study how they obtain nutrient elements (N, P). The project will provide several benefits. It will be the first to document microbial composition and nutrient uptake for these novel lacustrine pumice islands. Such studies are of high astrobiological relevance, as microbial succession on the initially sterile pumice will shed light on similar scenarios during Earth’s history, such as colonization of land or dynamics following planetary impacts. The investigators will also learn about the suitability of such post-volcanic environments to support life, helping inform interpretation if such habitats are ever identified beyond Earth.

    Proposal Title: Survivability of Organic Compounds Mixed with Martian Soil Analogue Against Shock Pressures: Investigation of the Effect of Asteroid Impacts on the Fate of Organic Matte
    Lead Investigator: Gözen Ertem, National Institutes of Health and CIW Team

    The goal of this proposal is to determine the survivability and fate of organic compounds mixed with martian soil analogue JSC-Mars I against the effects of asteroid impacts as a function of shock pressures. Information obtained through these laboratory experiments, along with on-going research investigating the effect of ionizing radiation on precursors of biologically important monomers will be utilized to create a database for the survivability of organics.

    Proposal Title: Creating a Reference Set of Amino Acids Structures for Use in Multiple Astrobiology Investigations
    Lead Investigator: Steve Freeland, U Hawaii Team *Co-Investigators: *H. James Cleaves, CIW Team and Georgia Tech Team

    This award provides funding for a short-term collaboration to define and computationally generate an exhaustive reference-set of the many amino acid structures relevant to astrobiology by virtue of their prebiotic and/or biological plausibility. This research will pave the way for a project to characterize these chemical structures in terms of their fundamental biophysical characterization, and make this data available as a new resource for the broader astrobiology/origins of life community.

    Proposal Title: Efficiency and mechanisms of oxygenic photosynthesis in the far-red light utilizing cyanobacterium, Acaryochloris marina
    Lead Investigator: Nancy Kiang, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and VPL Team at the U Washington
    Co-Investigators: Steven Mielke, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and VPL Team at the U Washington, David Mauzerall, Rockefeller University

    To support NASA’s goal to discover and characterize life on exoplanets, the investigators are engaged in research to elucidate plausible biosignatures of photosynthesis adapted to extrasolar light environments; specifically, what are plausible spectral absorbance signatures of pigments for oxygenic photosynthesis? Our principal objective is to identify an upper bound on photon wavelengths able to drive oxygenic photosynthesis. Doing so will: (1) Constrain the range of extrasolar environments in which spectral signatures of biogenic oxygen might be observed, thus informing future telescope missions; (2) Provide the fundamental understanding necessary to identify signatures of biological pigments in extrasolar spectra. The proposed project will complete and extend ongoing photoacoustic studies of the far-red light-utilizing cyanobacterium Acaryochloris marina, which is a model organism for photosynthesis adapted to alien light environments. The present specific objectives are to: (1) analyze the wavelength-dependence of in vivo energy-storage in A. marina; and (2) carry out photoacoustic measurements of the energy-storage efficiency of purified photosystem complexes isolated from A. marina. Meeting these objectives will advance understanding of photosynthesisin Acaryochloris, and provide insight on specific adaptations employed to accommodate far-red light environments.

    Proposal Title: Measuring the Abundance and Diversity of Microorganisms in Earth’s Upper Atmosphere
    Lead Investigator: David Smith, U Washington, VPL Team at the U Washington
    Co-Investigator: Victoria Meadows and Peter Ward, VPL Team at the U Washington, Dan Jaffe, U Washington, Bothell, Dale Griffin, US Geological Survey, Michael Roberts, NASA Kennedy Space Center, Andrew Schuerger, U Florida

    The abundance and diversity of microbial life in Earth’s upper atmosphere remains poorly understood. This research will identify and quantify up to 60,000 microbial taxa. Beyond putting the upper atmosphere on the map as a significant region for microbial biomass on Earth, this study has the potential to (1) introduce the stratosphere as an important astrobiology analog environment; (2) broaden the traditionally accepted boundary for Earth’s biosphere and the physical limits for life; and (3) inspire novel methods for sampling planetary atmospheres.

    2010 Selections for the NAI Director’s Discretionary Fund

    Proposal Title: Drilling the Serpentinizing Coast Range Ophiolite: a new integrative opportunity for the astrobiology community
    Lead Investigator: Dawn Cardace, U Rhode Island, NASA Ames Research Center Team
    Co-Investigators: Tori Hoehler, NASA ARC Team, Tom McCollum, U Colorado, Matt Schrenk, E. Carolina U/CIW Team

    The proposal seeks to explore the biogeochemical ecology and geomicrobiological processes associated with subsurface serpentinization at a land-based site in California. Current knowledge of serpentinization is limited to deep marine sites and surface terrestrial sites, which to date are not well studied, and are unfortunately subject to interactions with the atmosphere, surface water, and surface biology. The team will develop a subsurface observatory consisting of four shallow wells as a resource for the broader astrobiological community.

    Proposal Title: Perchlorate, Water, and Life: the geomicrobiology of Mars analog soils
    Lead Investigator: Mark Claire, U Washington, VPL Team
    Co-Investigators: Chris McKay, NASA ARC, Sam Kounaves, Tufts U, David Catling, U Washington, VPL, Andrew Jackson, Texas Tech U, John Coates, U California, Berkeley, Anna Engelbrektson, U California, Berkeley, Kennda Lynch, Colorado School of Mines, Shaneen Braswell, U Winnipeg, Armando Azua, Pontificia Universida Católica de Chile

    This team will study perchlorate in the driest and most Mars-like environments of Earth, the Antarctic Dry Valleys and Chile’s Atacama desert. The team proposes a collection of studies to constrain how perchlorate is formed, deposited, transported, and microbially utilized in various hyper-arid regions. The proposed interdisciplinary work includes geochemical and microbiological analysis of existing samples, laboratory experiments on the flow of water through desert soils, comparison and characterization of Phoenix experiments to analog soils, and modeling the atmospheric chemistry of the formation of perchlorate and co-occurring sulfate and nitrate salts.

    Proposal Title: Assessment of surface ice features as plausible sites for prebiotic organic synthesis from formaldehyde
    Lead Investigator: Jody W. Deming, U Washington, VPL and JPL-Icy Worlds teams
    Co-Investigators: George Cody, CIW, Vikki Meadows, U Washington, VPL

    Recent investigation of frost flowers (FF), centimeter-scale features that grow (at temperatures below –8°C) on the surface of new ice forming over natural bodies of water, has revealed that FF growing on sea ice contain high concentrations of formaldehyde (HCHO). This HCHO is considered a photolytic breakdown product of organic matter concentrated at the ice-atmosphere interface during FF formation. In a prebiotic ocean, HCHO might have originated from the breakdown of more complex organics derived from meteorites, hydrothermal vents or the rainout of organic haze, or been sourced directly to the ocean after formation in the atmosphere or at vents. Modeled effects of eutectic freezing on solute concentrations suggest that HCHO may reach millimolar levels within the brine fraction of FF. This team hypothesizes that brine concentration of HCHO and the availability of UV light and catalytic mineral surfaces combine to produce an environment conducive to prebiotic HCHO-based reactions, including formation of monosaccharides via the formose reaction. They will construct a novel eutectic-freezing chamber and conduct experiments to test this hypothesis, examining the products of UV light-driven HCHO condensation within FF grown from saline solutions of HCHO and mineral catalyst. Results will help to identify environmentally relevant settings for ribose production, a longstanding goal of researchers within the origin of life community, and inform the exploration of icy surfaces on other worlds. The eutectic freezing chamber can be used in future to advance the study of FF and their unique roles in the biogeochemical cycles of Earth’s polar regions.

    Proposal Title: Multiple Sulfur Isotope Analysis of Organic Materials of Astrobiological Interest
    Lead Investigators: Marilyn Fogel, Weifu Guo, Geophysical Laboratory, CIW Team
    Co-Investigators: Conel Alexander, CIW, George Cody, Dionysis Foustoukos, CIW, Mihaela Glamoclija, CIW, Bjorn Mysen, CIW, Dominic Papineau, Boston College/CIW and Douglas Rumble, CIW, James Farquhar, U Md/CIW, Harry Oduro, U Md/CIW, Yumiko Watanabe, PSU, Hiroshi Ohmoto, PSU, Jennifer Eigenbrode, GSFC; Shuhei Ono, MIT

    This award will fund a new elemental analyzer (EA) and develop a continuous flow mass spectrometric method for simultaneous determinations of the C, N and multiple S isotopic compositions (i.e., d13C, d14N, d34S, D33S) of organic materials, by coupling the vario MICRO cube elemental analyzer with an existing mass spectrometer at CIW.

    Proposal Title: In situ electrochemical profiling of Lake Vida, East Antarctica
    Lead Investigator: Brian Glazer, U Hawaii Team

    This award provides funding for the recipient to participate in an expedition aimed at characterizing the geochemistry and microbiology below the ice cap of Lake Vida, East Antarctica. In particular, the proposal aims to obtain depth profiles of the main redox species produced as a result of anaerobic respiration processes, using voltammetric techniques and Au/Hg voltammetric electrodes, to obtain depth profiles in situ with a high spatial resolution, without altering the stratification such that the brine could be further collected for other measurements.

    Proposal Title: Effect of Ionizing Radiation on Precursors of Biologically Important Molecules *Lead Investigator: * Robert Hazen, Geophysical Laboratory, CIW Team
    Co-Investigators: Gözen Ertem, National Institutes of Health

    This award will fund the acquisition of a Mars Simulation Chamber (MSC) to study the survivability of organic compounds that are detected in meteorites and believed to be delivered to Earth and Mars by interplanetery dust particles and comets.

    Proposal Title: Pilot Citizen Science Study of Distributed Domestic Water Heater Microbiology Diversity
    Lead Investigator: Christopher House, Penn State Astrobiology Research Center at The Penn State U
    Co-Investigator: John Peters, Astrobiology Biogeocatalysis Research Center at Montana State U

    Presently, there is a growing interest in the biogeography of microorganisms. By looking at the genetic differences from isolates of similar microbes from across the globe, researchers are currently trying to understand the degree to which populations of microbes are isolated and whether this isolation suggests an allopatric speciation model for prokaryotes. We propose to conduct a citizen science pilot study of microbial diversity in water heaters to both (1) access the feasibility of basing a citizen science project on field microbiology, and (2) generate a first image of the biogeographic distribution of thermophilic microorganisms across the United States.

    Proposal Title: Irradiance Effects on Cyanobacterial Alkane Production
    Lead Investigator: Linda Jahnke, NASA ARC Team
    Co-Investigators: Erich Fleming and Lee Prufert-Bebout, NASA ARC

    Cyanobacterial biomarkers have yielded powerful clues illuminating early Earth history. However, one of the most ubiquitous and important classes of cyanobacterial biomarkers (the alkanes) do not, as of yet, even have clearly identified cellular functions. These specific biomarkers occur with great frequency in both the fossil record and in the world’s petroleum reserves. They also often occur in significant quantities in field collected microbial mat samples and new isolates from field samples. However, there is a notable paucity of alkanes in laboratory cultivated cyanobacterial biomass, especially in isolates maintained many generations removed from their field of origin i.e., from culture collections.

    In this study, the potential for historically important terrestrial stress factors (Ultraviolet radiation –UV- and supersaturating visible light intensity) to impact cyanobacterial alkane production will be assessed, in order to elucidate if alkanes are produced or structurally modified to help cells tolerate these stresses.

    Proposal Title: Sample Return for Responses of Organisms to Space Environment (ROSE) Expose Flight Experiment
    Lead Investigator: Rocco Mancinelli, Bay Area Environmental Research Institute

    This project will support an imminent spaceflight opportunity, intended to further the understanding of the mechanism by which halophiles physiologically adapt to environmental stresses. Support will provide funds to return and analyze samples from an ISS space flight, as well as ground control simulation experiments, that have been returned to the DLR in Cologne, Germany, of Synechococcus (Nägeli), a halophilic cyanobacterium isolated from the evaporitic gypsum-halite crusts that form along the marine intertidal, and Halorubrum Chaoviator a member of the Halobacteriacea isolated from an evaporitic NaCl crystal obtained from a salt evaporation pond.

    Proposal Title: Coordinated micro-analytical approaches for in-situ analysis of Paleoproterozoic biological carbonaceous particles
    Lead Investigator: Dominic Papineau, Boston College and CIW Team
    Co-Investigators: Greg McMahon, Nanofabrication Laboratory, Boston College, Paul Strother, Weston Observatory, Boston College, Christian Hallmann, Department of Earth Atmospheric and Ocean Sciences, MIT team, Marilyn Fogel, Geophysical Laboratory, CIW team, Jianhua Wang, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, CIW team, Larry Nittler, Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, CIW team, Timothy Rose, Department of Mineral Sciences, Smithsonian Institution.

    One can envision that the first sample canister to be robotically returned from Mars will contain less than a thousand grams of fine- and coarse-grained sediments, bits of rocks, atmospheric gases, and perhaps small drill cores (MEPAG, 2008). The amount of material that will be distributed to different qualified laboratories in the scientific community of the various countries participating in this complex mission will undoubtedly be very small, perhaps a few tens of micrograms. This material will likely be distributed as processed (e.g. thin sections) and unprocessed samples (e.g. millimeter-sized bits of rocks). In order to minimize sample loss during the analysis of these precious samples and to maximize the return of scientific data on potential biosignatures, it is critical to develop coordinated micro-analytical in-situ approaches with state-of-the-art instruments. This project aims to prepare for the analysis of Mars Sample Return by combining non-destructive micro-analyses with minimally-destructive micro-fabricated targets of carbonaceous material. The overarching goal of this project is to study the petrography, crystallinity, and chemical and isotopic compositions of targets of carbonaceous material (CM) from Precambrian sedimentary rocks and meteorites to compare CM of unambiguously biological and nonbiological origins.

    The work will be performed collaboratively with existing state-of-the-art instruments available at Boston College, the Carnegie Institution for Science, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Smithsonian Institution.

    Proposal Title: Testing an ultra-stable Near-Infrared Frequency Comb with the Pathfinder Spectrograph at the Hobby Eberly Telescope
    Lead Investigator: Steinn Sigurdsson, PSARC, Penn State U Team
    Co-Investigators: Suvrath Mahadevan, PSU, L. Ramsey, PSU, C. Bender, PSU, R. Terrien, PSU, S. Osterman, CASA, U Colorado, Scott Diddams, NIST

    This team plans a commissioning run to test an ultra-stable laser frequency comb, as a calibration unit with the Pathfinder high resolution near infra-red spectrograph, at the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. This spectrograph is designed to find low mass planets around M-stars, and a highly stable high precision calibrator, such as a near infra-red lasercomb, with a dense set of lines, will allow very accurate wavelength calibration and hence high precision velocity measurements. Development and testing of new high precision measurement techniques are essential elements in the path to a high precision radial velocity survey for potentially habitable planets around M dwarfs.

    Proposal Title: A Bright Young Sun: Testing the Archaean Climate Paradox
    Lead Investigator: Steinn Sigurdsson PSARC, Penn State U Team

    There is a long standing paradox in solar system history, that the young Sun is estimated to have been about 25% fainter than the current solar luminosity. Yet there is evidence for prevalent liquid water on the Earth, and probably also Mars, suggesting a very large greenhouse effect, or possibly also much lower albedo. Geochemical evidence strongly suggests only a moderate greenhouse effect and cloud cover and rock albedo ought to preclude a very low overall albedo. A solution, previously advanced, is for the Sun to have been ~ 2% more massive, leading to a ~ 12% higher initial luminosity than the default estimate, due to higher luminosity and smaller planetary orbital radius. The Sun would then lose the excess mass through a strong wind, tapering off on a timescale of a few hundred million years. A new stellar evolution code, MESA, allows rapid, time explicit modeling of stellar evolution for a broad range of stellar parameters. Preliminary results suggest that an initial mass solar model of 1.02 solar masses may converge strongly on the current measured solar structure. This would account for the early warm Earth, and the hints of liquid water on Mars, and substantially change our perspective on the evolution of the early Solar System and the origins of life.

    Proposal Title: Towards other Earths: Achieving high velocity precision with a stable nearinfrared spectrograph
    Lead Investigator: Steinn Sigurdsson, PSARC, Penn State U Team
    Co-Investigators: Suvrath Mahadevan, PSU, L. Ramsey, PSU, C. Bender, PSU, R. Terrien, PSU

    The team requests funding for a hardware upgrade to a Pathfinder high resolution near infra-red spectrograph, installed at the Hobby-Eberly Telescope. The spectrograph is designed to find low mass planets around M-stars, and will provide increased throughput and higher velocity precision, and a path to further engineering upgrades in throughput and precision. This is a critical element in the path to a high precision radial velocity survey near infra-red spectrograph for a northern hemisphere 10m class telescope.

    Proposal Title: Virus Preservation in Silica, Halite, and Hot Spring Sediments
    Lead Investigator: Kenneth Stedman, Portland State U, NASA Ames Team
    Co-Investigators: Sherry Cady, Portland State University, Linda Jahnke, NASA Ames, Mark Young, Montana State U, John Peters, Montana State U, David DesMarais, NASA Ames

    Viruses are the most abundant biological entity on Earth outnumbering all other organisms by at least an order of magnitude. Given their ubiquity and abundance it is surprising that the paleontological record of viruses is practically non-existent. Virus preservation has been poorly studied despite the fact that viruses can be distinguished from their host due to their distinctive morphology and lipid composition, both of which indicate the potential for unique viral biosignatures. High silica hydrothermal ecosystems and evaporative brines are excellent systems for identifying viral biosignatures as these environments are well known to preserve microbial biosignatures and they are analogs for non-earth ecosystems. The team proposes two laboratory investigations with similar lipid-containing viruses, STIV and SH1, to determine the preservation potential of viruses in precipitating solutions. Specifically, the team proposes to silicify STIV and characterize morphology and lipids of the viruses post mineralization, and entrap SH1 within evaporate brine crystals and characterize their infectivity and lipid signature over time. They will also examine virus lipids in Boiling Spring Lake sediments to determine if an environmental virus lipid signature is detectable. Results of these studies will be the first understanding of the preservation potential of lipid-containing viruses, and lead to better characterization of silicified viruses and the examination of viruses within evaporate minerals. More broadly, it could revolutionize biomarker research by moving it to the nano-scale, and possibly allow the detection of the first known naturally occurring virus fossils, on Earth and possibly in non-Earth samples.

    Proposal Title: Survival of Sugars in Ice/Mineral Mixtures Upon High Velocity Impact: Simulating the Impact of Comets and Meteorites into Early Earth
    Lead Investigator: Nicolle Zellner, New York Center for Astrobiology, Albion College, RPI team
    Co-Investigators: Vanessa McCaffrey, Albion College, Murthy Gudipati, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech

    Understanding the delivery and preservation of organic molecules in meteoritic material is important to understanding the origin of life on Earth. The NASA Astrobiology Roadmap (Des Marais et al. 2008) lists understanding how habitable planets acquire organic compounds and how organic compounds are assembled into more complex molecular structures as important research objectives. Additionally, delivery and preservation of organic molecules, volatiles, and water were highlighted in two science initiatives at the NAI Strategic Science Initiative Workshop in Tempe, AZ (May 2009). Though we know that organic molecules are abundant in meteorites, comets, and interplanetary dust particles, few studies have examined how impact processes affect their chemistry and survivability under extreme temperatures and pressures. This study will examine how impact events may change the structure of simple sugars, both alone and when combined with ice mixtures. Future experiments will include minerals. These impact experiments will allow us to understand how sugar chemistry is affected by high pressure events and to contrast the survival probabilities of sugars in meteorite and comet impacts. These experiments will thus allow us to better understand how organic molecules are affected during their delivery to Earth.

    Related Publication: “Reactivity and Survivability of Glycolaldehyde in Simulated Meteorite Impact Experiments” in Origins of Life and Evolution of Biospheres

    2009 Selections for the NAI Director’s Discretionary Fund

    Proposal Title: Water Inventory and Microbial Habitability of Early Mars During the Late Heavy Bombardment
    Lead Investigator: Oleg Abramov, U. Colorado (CUB)/U. Hawaii (UH) Team
    Co-Investigators: Steve Mojzsis, CUB; Karen Meech, Gal Sarid, Jeff Taylor, Norbert Schorghofer, Steve Freeland, UH.

    We propose to apply existing models of impact-related thermal processes to evaluate the habitability of early Mars.  In particular, we will investigate how impacts may have compromised (or enhanced?) the habitability of Mars’surface and crust in its Noachian Eon, or before ~3.8 Ga, particularly during the Late Heavy Bombardment at 3.9 Ga.

    Proposal Title: The Evolution of Biological Metal Utilization: Integration of Genomic and Geologic Knowledge
    Lead Investigator: Chris DuPont, J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), Arizona State Univ. (ASU) and Montana State Univ. (MSU) Teams
    Co-Investigators: Ariel Anbar, ASU; John Peters, Eric Boyd, MSU; John McCraw JCVI.

    Metals are a fundamental part of the make-up of life.  In particular, they are incorporated into very specific metal-binding sites within proteins where they serve vital structural and catalytic functions.  With this in consideration, the dramatic, many-orders-of-magnitude shifts in environmental metal concentrations that are hypothesized to have occurred over Earth’s history are of particular significance.  Essentially, the availability of trace metals likely place significant constraints on the evolution of both specific biochemical pathways and entire lineages of life.  To examine this possibility, the distributions of specific metal-binding protein structures within fully sequenced genomes of organisms will be determined.  In parallel, a phylogenomic reconstruction of protein evolution will provide relative ages for each of the different metal-binding protein structures.  Together, these datasets will provide estimates of the age of modern proteomes and biochemical pathways.

    Proposal Title: Minerals to Enzymes: The Path to CO Dehydrogenase/Acetyl – CoA synthase
    Lead Investigator: John Peters, MSU Team
    Co-Investigators: Greg Ferry, PSU; Joan Broderick, Robert Szilagyi, MSU; Mike Russell, JPL Icy Worlds Team; Martin Schoonen, SUNY Stony Brook/MSU Team.

    Iron-sulfur-cluster-containing metalloenzymes catalyze key chemical transformations, their roles in overcoming barriers for early life in nitrogen, hydrogen, and energy metabolism being of paramount importance. Another representative of the complex iron-sulfur enzyme class that is related to hydrogenase and nitrogenase at the level of organometallic reactive sites is carbon monoxide dehydrogenase/acetyl CoA synthase. A nickel-iron-sulfur enzyme complex that catalyzes reversible carbon monoxide oxidation and carbon-carbon bond formation arguably was key to early carbon metabolism. We propose the creation of a strong distributed NAI team to tackle the reversible carbon monoxide oxidation / carbon-carbon bond formation problem in the context of the origin of life. The distributed team will examine the links between abiotic and biotic NiFeS motifs through the synthesis and characterization of the physical and catalytic properties of NiFeS clusters coordinated by short peptides.

    Proposal Title: Thermodynamic Efficiency of Electron-transfer Reactions in Purified Photosystem I and II Complexes in the Chlorophyll d-containing Cyanobacterium, Acaryochloris marina Lead Investigator: Nancy Kiang, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS)/VPL @ U. Washington Team
    Co-Investigators: David Mauzerall, Rockefeller Univ.; Steven Mielke, GISS; Robert Blankenship, Washington U.

    To support NASA’s goal to discover and characterize life on extrasolar planets, the investigators have been conducting research to constrain the range of plausible biosignatures that could be produced by photosynthesis that is adapted to other star types than the Earth’s Sun, in particular the spectral absorbance signature of photosynthetic pigments. Our driving question is to find out if there is an upper bound on the useful photon wavelength to drive oxygenic photosynthesis, and thereby determine predictive rules for main wavelength(s) for this process should it arise on a planet with a different kind of parent star from the Earth’s Sun. Until recently, chlorophyll a (Chl a) was the only known photopigment involved in oxygenic photosynthesis, utilizing photon energy in the red, but a cyanobacterium, Acaryochloris marina, was discovered to have Chl a substituted with Chl d, utilizing photons in the far-red/near-infrared, yet is still able to perform oxygenic photosynthesis. A. marina is adapted to an environment depleted in visible light and enriched in the far-red/near-infrared, with implications that oxygenic photosynthesis with different photosystem absorbance spectra in alternative spectral radiation environments is entirely plausible. To quantify the difference, if any, in thermodynamic efficiency in the photon energy use in A. marina compared to Chl a-utilizing photosystems, and hence to bound the possible long wavelength limit for oxygenic photosynthesis, we have been performing photoacoustic measurements on intact photosynthetic bacteria cells, under a funding from the 2008 NAI DDF. This funding request is to extend this work by performing these measurements on purified photosystem complexes from A. marina, to partition the energy losses along different components of the electron transfer pathway.  Partitioning these components will allow us to narrow down the key adjustments that have occurred in A. marina in comparison to what is known in the Chl a-utilizing photosystems.

    Proposal Title: Fostering Synergetic Interactions Among NAI Teams Reconstructing Early Life on Earth, and Attaching a Time Scale to the Genomic Record of Life
    Lead Investigator: Jim Lake, UCLA/Georgia Inst. Tech. Team

    Phylogenomics can determine when new biological functions arose, such as oxygenproducing photosynthesis or methanogenesis, by mapping the first appearance of novel genes. By correlating the appearance of these new genes with the timing of specific geological, paleontological, astronomical, and climatological events, we can attach a time scale to the evolution of life on Earth.

    Today there is a nearly universal consensus that a tree cannot describe the early evolution of life. Recent work in press in Nature (Lake 2009), however, provides evidence that the double membrane, Gram negative, prokaryotes originated as the result of an endosymbiosis between prokaryotes. Hence the evolutionary path of the double membrane group is represented by a specific ring, rather than by a tree. This group, which includes the Cyanobacteria and other intriguing prokaryotes, has profoundly altered life on Earth by producing 20% of the Earth’s atmosphere. Knowledge of the specific ring topology that accounts for the emergence of the double membrane group allows us to determine when the ring formed and to attach a reliable time scale to this part of the “tree of life”, thereby reducing the large errors introduced by the use of inadequate tree models.

    Here, we propose to determine more accurately the time of important innovations on Earth, including the appearance of oxygenic photosynthesis. Funds are requested to organize and run a Strategic Planning-based Winter meeting for NAI team members from diverse Earth-related sciences broadly related to this proposal and for a graduate student to perform these studies.

    Proposal Title: Following the Biogenic Elements in the CR Chondrites: An NAI Consortium Study
    Lead Investigator: Dante Lauretta, U. Arizona (UA)/ASU Team
    Co-Investigators: Sandra Pizzarello, ASU; Devin Schrader, UA; Gary Huss, UH; Tom Zega, NRL

    The Renazzo-like carbonaceous chondrites (CR) are among the most primitive material in the Solar System. Like the thoroughly studied CI and CM chondrites, the CR chondrites have experienced extensive aqueous alteration. The CR chondrites thus represent only the third highly aqueously altered asteroid sampled in the meteorite collection.

    Preliminary work shows that the amino acids, amines and aldehydes in CR chondrites differ significantly from those of CM chondrites in both overall abundances and molecular distribution (Pizzarello and Holmes, 2009). We propose a comprehensive consortium study of the CR chondrites, using expertise across four institutions: ASU, UA, UH, and CIW. Consortium PI Dante Lauretta oversees the effort and supervises graduate student Devin Schrader, who performs comprehensive characterization of the mineralogy, petrology, and geochemistry of the CR chondrites using optical microscopy, electron microprobe analysis, and ICP-MS. Sandra Pizzarello uses GC-MS to measure the abundances, distribution, isotopic compositions, and chirality of organic molecules. Gary Huss leads the analysis of O-isotopic ratios in key mineral phases representing both the anhydrous and aqueously altered population. Tom Zega performs FIB-TEM studies of the crystallography and atomic scale microstructure of representative phases. Ultimately, this work provides insight into the origin of the hydrated phase and associated organics in the CR chondrites.

    Proposal Title: Remote Sensing of Microbial and Plant Abundance and Diversity in SF Bay Salt Ponds: Principles Shaping the Future of Life on Earth and Beyond
    Lead Investigator: Rocco Mancinelli, SETI Institute/MSU Team
    Co-Investigators: Lee Johnson, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; Stephen Dunagan, NASA Ames Research Center (ARC), Dana Rogoff, SETI Institute

    Monitoring restoration of San Francisco Bay’s hypersaline ponds provides opportunity to observe habitat change and ecosystem evolution on a relatively short time scale. We propose a remote sensing aerial platform to track habitat changes over this large region. Equipment upon the local airship, Zeppelin NT, and high-resolution images will be compared to ground-truth measurements and satellite imagery for confirmation.  Habitat maps created will be distributed through the SETI Institute website.

    Our Objectives are: 1) Correlate salinity levels in aquatic habitats with microbial populations and diversity; 2) Determine the habitat type cover in terrestrial regions surrounding the South Bay’s former salt ponds; 3) Develop an aerial platform for use in other local applications; 4) Develop strategies for searching other solar system bodies for potential habitats for life; and 5) Determine the function of microbial activity in ecosystem health, cycling and evolution through the use of remote sensing.

    Proposal Title: Selectivity of Small Molecule Adsorption, Conformation, Kinetics: Selection, Preservation, and Delivery of Pre-Biotic Organics and Potential Biosignatures
    Lead Investigator: Nita Sahai, U. Wisconsin Team
    Co-Investigators: H. James Cleaves, Carnegie Institution of Washington; Jason Dworkin, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

    The role of mineral surfaces in extraterrestrial organic synthesis, pre-biotic chemistry, and the early evolution of life remains an open question. Mineral surfaces could promote synthesis, preservation, or degradation of chiral excesses of organic small molecules, polymers, and cells. Different minerals, crystal faces of a mineral, or defects on a face may selectively interact with specific organics, providing an enormous range of chemical possibilities. We focus here on amino-acid isomer adsorption, conformation, and racemization on minerals representing primitive and altered peridotite found in chondrites and on planetary bodies. The study is inspired by the discovery of an excess of L-isovaline, a non-biologic amino acid, in a few carbonaceous meteorites (Glavin and Dworkin, 2009). The results could have implications for understanding the origin of chirality in biology, selective preservation of certain organics in the geological record, and pre-biotic self-organization for chemical evolution. A major contribution is the introduction of high-throughput screening methods to the field of mineral-organic interactions.

    Proposal Title: The Effect of Variable CO2 Atmosphere on Modern Day Microbialites: Simulations using the NAI Variable Atmosphere Laboratory (VAL) as a Window into Earth’s Past
    Lead Investigator: Janet Siefert, Rice Univ./VPL@U. Washington Team
    Co-Investigators: Peter Ward, U. Washington; Jim Elser, ASU

    The proposed research will assess the adaptive response of an extant freshwater microbialite system at Cuatro Cienegas, Mexico, to simulated early Cambrian atmospheric CO2 values, using the NAI Variable Atmosphere Laboratory (VAL) at the University of Washington. Two specific metrics will be measured during the 4-week exposure experiment; i) the change in growth rate and overall community structure and ii) the actual transcription level changes that occur during the 4-week course of the adaptation. The data, analyses, and results will be cross-linked with data that are being generated on several research fronts within the NAI, especially in connection with ASU’s efforts to ‘Follow the Elements’ and U. of Washington’s biosignature models for the VPL. More broadly, the results will provide indications of the role global warming is playing and may have played in Earth’s past.

    The project is receiving support from the Department of Energy’s Joint Genome Institute Community Sequencing Program for metagenomic and metatranscriptomic sequencing of successive layers of the Cuatro Cienegas microbialites.   Although microbialites are minor contributors to overall aquatic carbon sequestration, a more detailed understanding of the mechanisms of microbialite carbon mineralization could aid in developing methods for engineered carbon sequestration that could be deployed on a large scale. This research will also provide NASA a better understanding of possible microbial communities on extra-terrestrial planets.

    Proposal Title: Alternative Chirality Amino Acid Utilization Research in Support of Mars
    Lead Investigator: Henry Sun, Desert Research Institution/ASU Team
    Co-Investigators: Ariel Anbar, ASU, Chris McKay, NASA ARC

    Laboratory experiments will test a new concept for Martian life detection. Chiral preference in organic consumption may distinguish between biological and chemical reactions. Offered D- and L-form of a chiral organic compound, living organisms should select only one for utilization, whereas abiotic redox processes are indiscriminate and would destroy both. Proposed experiments with archaea, fungi, and bacteria will define a list of amino acids that are suitable for a chiral experiment on Mars, because not all amino acid species appear to be stereo specific. Necessary analytical capability and a culture collection of extremophiles already exist from an ongoing Exobiology project. This proposal complements existing themes of the ASU team. In particular, it ties to the search for life as we don’t know it on Earth or the “shadow biosphere”. Could it be that some of the microorganisms are unculturable on normal nutrient media because they prefer alternative chirality substrates?

    Proposal Title: Using the NAI Variable Atmosphere Laboratory (VAL) to Test the Kump et al. (2005) (H2S poisoning) Hypothesis
    Lead Investigator: Peter Ward, U. Washington/ VPL@U. Washington Team

    The proposed research is a hypothesis-driven study of the effects (if any) of increased H2S, CO2, and increased or decreased O2 on various groups of organisms in order to determine lethal limits or other effects of various gas combinations either in air or water. The values of gas used will be best estimates of global atmospheric compositions at the end of the Permian and Triassic Periods (low O2, , high CO2, possible high H2S, and in the middle of the Carboniferous Period (high O2,, low CO2. The objectives are to discover kill-mechanisms and growth rates of various groups at different times in Earth History. The benefits are potentially large: this kind of work has already revolutionized the medical and biological disciplines by showing that H2S can cause suspended animation in certain animal groups. Here we will also test to see if the long delay in the evolution of animal life was perhaps due in part, or entirely, to the presence of toxic levels of H2S dissolved in seawater during the Archean and Proterozoic. The benefits to NASA will be a better understanding of mass extinction events, and better estimates of the number of habitable Earths in the Cosmos.

    Proposal Title: Arsenic and Old Life: Novel Geo‐biochemistry of Arsenic in Biological Systems
    Lead Investigator: Felisa Wolfe-Simon, Harvard U./ASU and MIT Teams
    Co-Investigators: Ron Oremland, USGS; Paul Davies, Ariel Anbar, ASU; Ann Pearson, Harvard; Roger Summons, MIT

    This proposal begins to search for new and novel uses of arsenic by biology on Earth. There are two main experiments unified in this direction. Briefly, all known life requires phosphorus (P) in the form of inorganic phosphate (PO4 ‐ or Pi) and phosphate‐containing organic molecules. Pi serves as the backbone of the nucleic acids that constitute genetic material and as the major repository of chemical energy for metabolism in polyphosphate bonds. Arsenic (As) lies directly below P on the periodic table and so the two elements share many chemical properties, although their chemistries are sufficiently dissimilar that As cannot directly replace P in modern biochemistry. Arsenic is toxic because As and P are similar enough that organisms attempt this substitution. We hypothesize that As‐using biochemical systems analogous to but distinct from P‐based metabolism may exist today in As‐rich environments. As‐based metabolism could be ancestral to known biochemistry, finding refuge in such settings, or could arise as a later adaptation in such settings. This proposal seeks to cultivate organisms utilizing such “weird life” biochemical pathways to determine if they are still present on Earth in As‐rich environments.

    We also seek to isolate, confirm and characterize a unique form of As‐utilizing photosynthesis in cyanobacteria.  Arsenite can be used by purple anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria as an electron source in As‐rich environments. Therefore, there is the strong possibility that cyanobacteria in these environments can execute this type of metabolism as well. To execute this project, we have formed a multi‐NAI team with involvement as well from those new to the NAI. Our contributions to NASA may well range from a better understanding of the possible biology on Earth to greater insight as to what to look for out in the Universe.

    2008 Selections for the NAI Director’s Discretionary Fund

    Proposal Title: Spectral Library – An Online Database of Molecular Line Lists, Stellar Spectra, Photosynthetic Pigments and Other Spectra for Discerning Biomarkers
    Investigator: John Armstrong, Weber State/VPL Team; Nancy Kiang, GISS/VPL Team; Linda Brown, JPL/VPL Team

    Summary: Will develop a comprehensive database of molecular absorption spectra, photosynthetic pigments and mineral spectra for use by the astrobiology community, with query and visualization tools.

    Proposal Title: Volcanic SO2, atmospheric photochemistry, andclimate on early Mars
    Investigators: Mark Claire, U Washington/VPL Team; Jim Kasting, PSU/VPL Team; Jacob Haqq-Misra PSU/VPL Team; David Pollard, PSU/VPL Team; Megan Smith, PSU; Kevin Zahnle, ARC; David Catling, U Washington; Victoria Meadows, U Washington/VPL Team; Shawn Domagol-Goldman, U Washington/VPL Team; Ty Robinson, U Washington/VPL Team; Feng Tian, U Colorado/VPL Team; Giles Marion, Desert Research Institute

    Summary: Will model the conditions under which volcanic sulfur gases become substantial atmospheric components under early Mars irradiance and escape conditions.

    Proposal Title: Evolution of Organic Matter in Space: UV-Vis Spectroscopy investigation on Nanosatellites (EO-Mission)
    Investigators: Pascale Ehrenfreund, George Washington U/U Wisconsin Team; and Antonio Ricco, Farid Salama, Lou Allamandola, Andrew Mattioda, NASA Ames Research Center Team

    Summary: Development of a prototype UV-Vis spectrometer to monitor for in-situ measurements of organic material on future free flyers and lunar surface exposure facilities.

    Proposal Title: Acquisition of Computational Equipment for Interdisciplinary Research on the Origin of Main Belt Comets and the Formation of Habitable Planets
    Investigators: Nader Haghighipour, Karen Meech, David Jewitt, Ed Scott, U Hawaii Team; Alan Boss, Carnegie Institution Washington Team; Steinn Sigurdsson, PSU Team; Eric Agol, U Washington

    Summary: Will upgrade processors to allow detailed and efficient computer simulations of Main Belt Comet origins, dynamic stability, and role in the delivery of water to Earth, as well as to more effectively model habitable planet formation.

    Proposal Title: Modeling Biogenic Methane Flux in the Subseafloor: Quantification and diversity analysis of methanogens at deep-sea hydrothermal vents.
    Investigator: Julie Huber, MBL Team

    Summary: Will model the biogenic flux of methane in the subseafloor from diffuse flow vents at two hydrothermal sites in the Northeast Pacific Ocean. Will use a combination of cultivation, geochemistry, and molecular based analyses to quantify and constrain methane flux in the deep sea.

    Proposal Title: Astrobiology Ice Chemistry Lab Facility
    Investigators: Ralf Kaiser, Karen Meech, David Jewitt, U Hawaii Team; Bishun Khare, SETI Institute Team; Steve Charnley, GSFC Team

    Summary: Will complete the instrumentation for an experimental ice chemistry facility to develop a better understanding of the astrobiological and chemical evolution of the Solar System.

    Proposal Title: Thermodynamic efficiency of electron-transfer reactions in the Chlorophyll d-containing cyanobacterium, Acharyochloris marina
    Investigators: Nancy Kiang, GISS/VPL Team; Robert Blankenship, Washington U/VPL Team; Steven Mielke, GISS/VPL Team; David Mauzerall, Rockefeller U.

    Summary: Will compare electron-harvesting pathways in the oxygenic Chl-d containing cyanobacterium A. marina to examine the efficiency of photosynthesis at long wavelengths. This will address the range of extrasolar environments within which oxygenic photosynthesis might arise, and inform the choice of target systems for planet-finding missions.

    Proposal Title: A Virtual Resource Center for Interdisciplinary Inquiry into Intelligent Life
    Investigators: Lori Marino, Emory U/SETI Institute Team and Kathryn Denning, York U

    Summary: Development of an online Virtual Resource Center to facilitate interdisciplinary research on intelligence.

    Proposal Title: Extra-cellular Polymeric Substances as Armor Against Cell Membrane Rupture on Mineral Surfaces: Evolution of Cellularity, and Potential Biosignature Preservation
    Investigators: Nita Sahai, Eric Roden, William Hickey, U Wisconsin Team; Martin Schoonen, Stony Brook U/Montana State U Team

    Summary: Examine the evolution of cellularity and the role of the extracellular matrix in interactions with mineral surfaces.

    Proposal Title: Towards precision measurements of low mass planets around M-stars
    Investigators: Steinn Sigurdsson, L.W. Ramsey, S. Redman, PSU Team

    Summary: Will develop and test instrumentation to extend astronomical precision radial velocity measurements into the near-infrared, enabling extrasolar planet search to be broadened to include faint M dwarf stars.

    Proposal Title: Laser Ablation-Electron Impact Ionization-Miniature Mass Spectrometer (LA-EI-MMS) for in-situ Geochronology and Hydrology of Martian Rocks
    Investigators: Mahadeva Sinha, JPL/ U Wisconsin Team and Brian Beard, U Wisconsin Team

    Summary: Development of a Laser Ablation-Electron Impact Ionization front end for a previously developed miniature mass spectrometer aimed at achieving capability for in situ Rb-Sr age dating on Mars.

    Proposal Title: Creating a Global Repository for Astrobiology Microbial Metagenomics
    Investigators: Larry Smarr, UCSD/MBL Team; Mitchell Sogin, MBL Team; Thomas Schmidt, Michigan State U; Norman Pace, U Colorado

    Summary: Creating a Global Repository for Astrobiology Microbial Metagenomics Data and providing leadership to the Genomics Standards Consortium, an international working group formed to develop minimum information standards for genomes, metagenomes, and metadata.

    Proposal Title: Detection of Microbial Metabolic Activity at Very Low Levels
    Investigators: David Summers, SETI Institute Team and Tullis Onstott, Princeton/IPTAI Team

    Summary: Will use multiphoton detection of I-125 incorporation into DNA to measure lower temperature limit at which metabolic activity can be detected. Will help to define environmental limits for microbial activity.

    Selected Workshops

    Title: Origin of Earth Water Mission Instrumentation Development Workshop
    Investigators: Karen Meech and David Jewitt, U Hawaii Team
    Summary: A two-day workshop for instrument specialists and comet volatile specialists to explore detection of volatiles.

    Title: NAI-Nordic Summer School – Water, Ice and the Evolution of Life in the Universe
    Investigators: Karen Meech, U Hawaii Team and Wolf Geppert, Stockholm University
    Summary: Development of logistics, program and lectures for a two week summer school including lectures, excursions and laboratory investigations.

    Title: Workshop to Develop an Astrobiology Roadmap of Societal Issues
    Investigators: Margaret Race and Rocco Mancinelli, SETI Institute Team
    Summary: A 2.5 day workshop of astrobiology scientists and technologists to develop a roadmap and framework for Astrobiology Societal Issues.

    Title: Workshop on the Habitability of Super-Earth Planets
    Investigator: Steinn Sigurdsson, PSU Team
    Summary: A 5 day workshop on the Habitability of Super-Earth Planets from August 18 – 22, 2008, concurrent with a Super-Earths workshop in Aspen Colorado.

    Title: AbGradCon 2009 hosted by the University of Washington
    Investigators: Sanjoy Som, U Washington/VPL Team, and Aaron Goldman, Rika Anderson, Marcela Ewert, Eva Stueeken, Darci Snowden, Nick Cowan, Mark Claire, U Wash
    Summary: To host the 2009 Astrobiology Graduate Student Conference (AbGradCon) at the University of Washington from July 14 – 17, 2009.