The goal of NASA’s Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology program is to understand the origin, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the Universe. Research is centered on the origin and early evolution of life, the potential of life to adapt to different environments, and the implications for life elsewhere. This research is conducted in the context of NASA’s ongoing exploration of our stellar neighborhood and the identification of biosignatures for in situ and remote sensing applications.


Areas of Research:

Planetary Conditions for Life:
Research in this area seeks to delineate the galactic and planetary conditions conducive to the origin of life. Topics of interest include the formation and stability of habitable planets, the formation of complex organic molecules in space and their delivery to planetary surfaces, models of early environments in which organic chemical synthesis could occur, the forms in which prebiotic organic matter has been preserved in planetary materials, and the range of planetary environments amenable to life.

Prebiotic Evolution:
Research in the area of prebiotic evolution seeks to understand the pathways and processes leading from the origin of planetary bodies to the origin of life. The strategy is to investigate the planetary and molecular processes that set the physical and chemical conditions within which living systems may have arisen. A major objective is determining what chemical systems could have served as precursors of metabolic and replicating systems on Earth and elsewhere, including alternatives to the current DNARNA – protein basis for life.

Early Evolution of Life and the Biosphere:
The goal of research into the early evolution of life is to determine the nature of the most primitive organisms and the environment in which they evolved. The opportunity is taken to investigate two natural repositories of evolutionary history available on Earth: the molecular record in living organisms and the geological record. These paired records are used to: (i) determine when and in what setting life first appeared and the characteristics of the first successful living organisms; (ii) understand the phylogeny and physiology of microorganisms, including extremophiles, whose characteristics may reflect the nature of primitive environments; (iii) determine the original nature of biological energy transduction, membrane function, and information processing, including the construction of artificial chemical systems to test hypotheses regarding the original nature of key biological processes; iv) investigate the development of key biological processes and their environmental impact; v) examine the response of Earth’s biosphere to extraterrestrial events; vi) investigate the evolution of genes, pathways, and microbial species subject to long – term environmental change relevant to the origin of life on Earth and the search for life elsewhere; and vii) study the coevolution of microbial communities, and the interactions within such communities, that drive major geochemical cycles, including the processes through which new species are added to extant communities.

Evolution of Advanced Life:
Research associated with the study of the evolution of advanced life seeks to determine the biological and environmental factors leading to the development of multicellularity on Earth and the potential distribution of complex life in the Universe. This research includes studies of the origin and early evolution of those biological factors that are essential to multicellular life, such as developmental programs, intercellular signaling, programmed cell death, the cytoskeleton, cellular adhesion control and differentiation, in the context of the origin of advanced life. This research area also includes an evaluation of environmental factors such as the influence of extraterrestrial (e.g., bolide impacts, orbital and solar variations, gamma-ray bursts, etc.) and planetary processes (“Snowball Earth” events, rapid climate change, etc.) on the appearance and evolution of multicellular life. Of particular interest are mass extinction events.

Exobiology for Solar System Exploration:
Research in this area focuses on relating what is known about life on Earth to conditions prevailing on other planetary bodies. This research includes assessments of the survivability of various types of Earth microorganisms and the formation and retention of biosignatures under non-Earth conditions (e.g., Mars, Europa). Also included under this research area are efforts to assess the potential habitability of planetary environments other than those found on the Earth.