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University of Colorado, Boulder
07/1998 - 10/2003 (CAN 1)

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University of Colorado Center for Astrobiology

The University of Colorado, Boulder (CUB) team is addressing the origin of stars and planets, the development of habitable planets, the “RNA World” and the origins of life, biological evolution on Earth, the energetics of life on other planets, and the philosophical aspects of astrobiology and the search for life elsewhere. Specific research topics include:

Constraints on Planet Formation

(John Bally, lead). This groups has recently found compelling evidence for growth of dust grains in the outer portions of the largest protoplanetary disks in the Orion Nebula, providing insight into the very first stages of planet formation.

Planetary Climates

(Brian Toon, lead). Efforts within this project center on understanding processes that affect early climate on terrestrial planets. Results to date for Mars indicate (a) that impact release of crustal water may have played a substantial role in maintaining an early climate conducive to life and (b) that carbon dioxide clouds on Mars have radiative effects that make it difficult for them to contribute to the putative early greenhouse warming of Mars.

Setting the Stage for the Origin of Life on Earth

(Steve Mojzsis, lead). Representing a new emphasis in the CUB Team, this group is exploring the geological environment on early Earth and the relevance for the origin and early history of life on Earth.

RNA World and Origin of Life

(Mike Yarus, lead). Research in this area is progressing in a number of directions; in developing a technique for Direct Isolation of Catalysts or Enzymes (DICE), in the synthesis of new Transition State Analogues (TSAs) for the ribosomal peptidyl transferase ribozyme, and in the selection of a set of RNAs that bind these compounds.

Toward a Molecular Phylogeny of a Metabolic Enzyme, Maleylacetoacetate Isomerase

(Shelley Copley, lead). The goal of this new project is to use the enzyme maleylacetoacetate (MAA) isomerase to study the evolution of metabolic pathways and the spread of metabolic genes. MAA has a puzzling phylogenetic distribution, in which the distribution is patchy, as might be expected if the gene has been distributed by infrequent lateral transfer events or lost selectively in certain lineages.

Molecular Analysis of Microbial Ecosystems in Extreme Environments

(Norman Pace, lead). Studies within this project center around development and use of rRNA-based molecular methods to survey and study the microbial constituents of ecosystems in extreme environments. Recent results include the discovery of seven new kingdom-level phylogenetic groups of eucaryotes in anaerobic environments and the identification of hydrogen (as opposed to sulfur) as the fundamental energy source for thermophilic communities in Yellowstone hot springs.

Symbiosis and the Origin of Multicellularity in Photosynthetic Organisms

(William Friedman, lead). This group is studying symbiosis in order to understand major events in the evolution of life on Earth, including, for example, the origin of multicellularity. Results include beginning to understand one of the most important symbioses in evolutionary history, the mycorrhizal (plant-fungus) association in early land plant lineages; and analyzing the role of these symbioses in the colonization of land by photosynthetic organisms.

Energetics of Life on Other Planets

(Bruce Jakosky, lead). Members of this project are analyzing the geochemical environment of the surface and subsurface of Mars in order to determine the energy available from water-rock chemical reactions to support possible metabolism.

Philosophical Issues in Astrobiology

(Carol Cleland, lead). The main object of this group is to explore the nature of scientific investigations as applied to astrobiology, in order to better understand historical vs. experimental sciences and the implications for, for example, the search for life on Mars.

Societal Issues in Astrobiology

(Bruce Jakosky, lead). This group is using astrobiology as a way to understand the relationship between science and society, the importance of educating the public as to the nature of science (and, equally importantly, of non-science), and the role of science in society today.

Annual Reports