June 2008

"The CheMin mineralogical instrument on the MSL mission and the field-portable TERRA version available for NAI field campaigns"

Speaker: David Blake
Date/Time: Monday, June 30, 2008 11:00AM Pacific

Abstract: Dr. Blake will describe the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) '09 mission and its CheMin XRD/XRF instrument. A terrestrial field-deployable version of CheMin (called "TERRA") will be available to perform in situ analyses during NAI field campaigns. The TERRA instrument has already been proven to be invaluable on field expeditions to Spitsbergen (Norway), the dry valleys of Antarctica, Canada (twice), and Rio Tinto (Spain).

The NAI is pleased to announce the recipients of the 2008 Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology:

A new study from NAI's Montana State University Team appears in the current issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The study probes the hydrogenase enzyme, a large, complex enzyme which plays a major role in anaerobic metabolism by creating molecular hydrogen. The research team produced a crystal structure of the enzyme to unprecedented resolution, revealing a new level of detail in the enzyme's active site, and providing clues about it's evolution. These results further our understanding of the transition from the abiotic (non-living) world to the biological world which may have been an early event in the development of life on Earth, and possibly a common feature of life elsewhere in the universe. [Source: NAI Newsletter]

Astrobiologists hypothesize that shallow water, not deep water, may have cradled the planet's first life; that the dark, carbon-poor depths offered little energy to emerging life. But the newfound abundance of seafloor microbes makes it theoretically possible that early life thrived - and maybe even began - on the seafloor. "Some might even favor the deep ocean for the emergence of life since it was a bastion of stability compared with the surface, which was constantly being blasted by comets and other objects," suggests study author and NAI member Katrina Edwards in the University of Southern California press release. For images and resources, see NSF's press page. [Source: NAI Newsletter]

Researchers from NAI's Marine Biological Laboratory Team continue their study of the deep biosphere, reporting the latest results in Nature. This new study reveals that bacterial communities dwelling on ocean-bottom rocks are more abundant and diverse than previously thought, especially relative to the overlying water column. The microbes appear to ?feed? on the oceanic crust through seawater-rock alteration reactions involving the oxidation and hydration of glassy basalt. [Source: NAI Newsletter]

Researchers from NAI's Penn State Team announced at the American Society of Microbiology General Meeting in Boston their discovery of a novel species of ultra-small bacteria that has survived for more than 120,000 years within the ice of a Greenland glacier at a depth of nearly two miles. The species is related genetically to certain bacteria found in fish, marine mud, and the roots of some plants, yet it has persisted in a low-temperature, high-pressure, reduced-oxygen, and nutrient-poor habitat. The study's authors speculate that it's unusual size helped enable it's survival in the ice for so long. [Source: NAI Newsletter]

Researchers from NAI's University of California, Berkeley Team have a new study in Science focused on Box Canyon in Idaho. Incised into a basaltic plain with no drainage network upstream, and approximately 10 cubic meters per second of seepage emanating from its vertical headwall, the canyon is a veritable poster child of groundwater seepage erosion. But this new study posits evidence that the canyon?s formation was caused rather by catastrophic megaflood 45,000 years ago. Their results imply that flooding of this kind may have caused similar features on Mars. [Source: NAI Newsletter]

The NAI congratulates the faculty sabbatical awardees for the NAI MIRS program for 2008. They are:

Dr. Prabhakar Misra, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Howard University, who will be working with Dr. Paul Mahafft at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, on a project entitled "Spectroscopy and Analytical Protocols for Organic Molecules of Relevance to the Origin of Life on Mars and Earth."

Dr. Erik Melchiorre, Associate Professor of Geology, California State University, San Bernardino, who will work with Drs. Karen Meech, Mike Mottl and Jim Cowen at the University of Hawaii, at Manoa. His study is entitled, "Planetary Habitability and the Origins of Life: Evaluation of Mineralogical Evidence for Extremophile Colonization within Terrestrial Subduction Zones. "

For more information about the NAI MIRS program see [Source: NAI Newsletter]

Do you Tweet? If so, then you'll be happy to know that you can now follow an @AstrobiologyNAI Twitter stream. If you don't have any idea what the first two sentences in this article are about, keep reading! They refer to a micro-blogging tool called "Twitter," an increasingly popular, instant-messaging service that is quickly becoming the place where news breaks first, outpacing mainstream media.

The Australian Centre for Astrobiology has, after a period of transition, moved its headquarters from Macquarie University to the University of New South Wales (UNSW), also in Sydney. Its new web address is Its Director remains Prof Prof. Malcolm Walter ( The new Deputy Director is Prof. Brett Neilan ( whose research interests include the molecular biology and functional microbiology of stromatolite systems, and the toxins of cyanobacteria.

Applications are due on July 1, 2008 for the NASA Postdcoctoral Program. The NAI will also be participating in the next cycle of applications, due November 1. More information can be found at [Source: NAI Newsletter]


The 2008 Summer School program will be focussed on the exploration of icy worlds orbiting the giant planets of our Solar System. These satellites are important astrobiology targets in the exploration plans of space agencies as refl ected in the successes of the Galileo mission to Jupiter and the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn.

The NASA Astrobiology Institute is now Twittering at AstrobiologyNAI

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Headquarters has released NASA Research Announcement (NRA) NNH08ZTT003N entitled "Research Opportunities for Fundamental Space Biology Investigations in Microbial, Plant and Cell Biology". The full text of the solicitation is available on the NASA Research Opportunities homepage at under menu listing "Open Solicitations".