January 2009

Organizers: Pier Luigi Luisi and Kepa Ruiz-Mirazo

The overall idea behind this workshop is to tackle a number of key questions about the origin of life that still remain unanswered, attempt to clarify why it is so, and to discuss how to progress in our efforts to answer these questions.

In the field of the origins of life, as in many other fields, there is a tendency and a danger for all of us to keep working in our own, fairly narrow areas of expertise and ignore "the big picture". Thus, from time to time, it is important to ask "where are we in the field and what are the main stumbling blocks on the road?" A similar meeting was already held, in a preliminary form, in Erice, Sicily, in 2006. It created a considerable interest so many researchers asked that we continue the experiment in a more developed form. In fact, one conclusion of the Erice meeting was that it should be repeated, possibly on regular basis (every 2-3 years) and involved more countries and a larger number of young researchers.

The NASA Planetary Biology Internship Program provides opportunities each year for nine or 10 interns to undertake research at NASA research centers, NASA-sponsored laboratories, and academic institutions. The pursuit of such studies is expected to broaden the base of this new science by encouraging people in many different fields to take part.

Graduate students accepted in the PBI program will be expected to carry out research with a NASA-sponsored investigator for eight weeks, usually during the summer months. Typical programs in which interns may become involved include: global ecology and remote sensing; microbial ecology and bio-mineralization; advanced life support; and origin and early evolution of life.

Applications are due March 2, 2009. For more information, visit . Please e-mail questions about this opportunity to Michael Dolan at

Dear Colleagues,

The American Institutue for Astronautics and Aeronautics (AIAA) is again organizing a Congressional Visit Day, to occur this year on March 17 - 18 in Washington, DC. As in recent years, the ASGSB will have representatives in the delegation that fans out across Capitol Hill, visiting key congressional offices to educate staffers involved with senators and representatives with interests and committee assignments that are relevant to NASA activities. It is especially effective to have young, informed, enthusiastic and articulate students representing current and future activities in the space life sciences. We are fortunate that the AIAA is inviting student participation in the delegation.

I write to invite nominees for ASGSB Student Delegates for CVD on March 17-18. Transportation and expenses will be covered for one, or possibly two ASGSB students. Please send your nominations, along with a CV for each student to my assistant, Ms. Barbara Grinder, bgrinder (at)

Best wishes,

Jeffrey R. Alberts
President, ASGSB

Message from the Center Director Revised: Ames Takes On...The Vatican?

Well, not exactly. But at 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 19, Ames' own Lynn Rothschild will engage Father George Coyne, Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory (and my college adviser) on "The Limits to Life in a Fertile Universe." I will moderate as they consider the fact that while the potential for life was present at the Big Bang, the only place that the promise may have been realized is planet Earth. George Coyne, an astronomer and Jesuit priest, and Lynn Rothschild, an evolutionary biologist and astrobiologist, will approach this question from their different perspectives. They will consider what niches life may have found since the Big Bang, and muse on the significance of the fertile universe.

The talk will take place in the ballroom in Building 3 at 7 p.m. on February 19, 2009. It is being jointly hosted by ARC, the Commonwealth Club and the Yale Club. The event is open to the public; admission is $10, payable in advance or in cash at the door. If you wish to pay in advance via credit card, please contact Georgette Gehue of the Commonwealth Club at (408) 280-5842 or at email address She will add your name to the list of attendees. She can also reserve a spot for you even if you pay at the door.

Light refreshments will be served.

I think this will be an extremely interesting exchange of ideas, and hope you will be able to join us.

S. Pete Worden
Center Director

The American Society for Gravitational and Space Biology (ASGSB), founded in 1984, provides a forum to foster research, education and professional development in the multidisciplinary fields of gravitational and space biology. We are a diverse group of scientists, engineers and students who exchange ideas that bridge basic and applied biological research in space and gravitational sciences. Our society of ~350 professionals and students from universities, government, and industry represents the core community with a mission to work closely with NASA to create and disseminate knowledge about how living organisms respond to gravity and the spaceflight environment.

This knowledge provides key insights into normal and abnormal cell function and organism physiology that cannot be observed using traditional experimental approaches on Earth, and serves as a venue for breakthrough biomedical and biotechnological discoveries to advance human exploration of space and improve quality of life for the general public. Our mission includes education and outreach to the general public, students and teachers, Congress, NASA and other domestic and foreign governmental agencies. Our community stimulates students to pursue careers in life science, technology, engineering and mathematics and trains the next generation of scientists and bioengineers.

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Applications are invited for an Origins Institute (OI) Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellowship to commence on, or after Sept. 1, 2009 for an initial period of 2 years, with the possibility of renewal for a third year. The OI is involved in a wide range of astrobiological research including several major national and international collaborative efforts (see our website ). Funds will also be available to cover travel and research expenses.

Areas of interest include: the formation and delivery of biomolecules to terrestrial planets; the formation, physical properties, and characterization of SuperEarths and terrestrial exoplanets; phylogenetics and prebiotic conditions related to the RNA world and the evolution of the earliest organisms; microbiology in extreme environments on Earth including polar microbiology and microbial energetics in extreme environments; and the interpretation of biosignatures as the basis of understanding early life on Earth and as the foundation for the search for life on Mars. OI researchers are working at several Mars analogue sites and are associated with solar system exploration for signatures of microbial life. The OI has a strong complement of faculty members in a number of related fields and the OI Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellow will have many opportunities to collaborate with OI faculty and OI collaborative research programs.

Astrobiology. October 2008, 8(5): 1001-1011.

We report on the design, operation, and data analysis methods employed on the VNIR imaging spectrometer instrument that was part of the Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE). The imaging spectrometer is a hyperspectral scanning pushbroom device sensitive to VNIR wavelengths from 400-1000 nm. During the MARTE project, the spectrometer was deployed to the Rio Tinto region of Spain. We analyzed subsets of three cores from Rio Tinto using a new band modeling technique. We found most of the MARTE drill cores to contain predominantly goethite, though spatially coherent areas of hematite were identified in Core 23. We also distinguished non Fe-bearing minerals that were subsequently analyzed by X-ray diffraction (XRD) and found to be primarily muscovite. We present drill core maps that include spectra of goethite, hematite, and non Fe-bearing minerals. Astrobiology 8, 1001-1011.

Astrobiology. October 2008, 8(5): 1013-1021.

The 2005 Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) project conducted a simulated 1-month Mars drilling mission in the Rio Tinto district, Spain. Dry robotic drilling, core sampling, and biological and geological analytical technologies were collectively tested for the first time for potential use on Mars. Drilling and subsurface sampling and analytical technologies are being explored for Mars because the subsurface is the most likely place to find life on Mars. The objectives of this work are to describe drilling, sampling, and analytical procedures; present the geological analysis of core and borehole material; and examine lessons learned from the drilling simulation.

Astrobiology. October 2008, 8(5): 1049-1060.

Sampling of subsurface rock may be required to detect evidence of past biological activity on Mars. The Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) utilized the Rio Tinto region, Spain, as a Mars analog site to test dry drilling technologies specific to Mars that retrieve subsurface rock for biological analysis. This work examines the usefulness of visible-near infrared (VNIR) (450-1000 nm) point spectrometry to characterize ferric iron minerals in core material retrieved during a simulated Mars drilling mission. VNIR spectrometry can indicate the presence of aqueously precipitated ferric iron minerals and, thus, determine whether biological analysis of retrieved rock is warranted. Core spectra obtained during the mission with T1 (893-897 nm) and T2 (644-652 nm) features indicate goethite-dominated samples, while relatively lower wavelength T1 (832-880 nm) features indicate hematite. Hematite/goethite molar ratios varied from 0 to 1.4, and within the 880-898 nm range, T1 features were used to estimate hematite/goethite molar ratios. Post-mission X-ray analysis detected phyllosilicates, which indicates that examining beyond the VNIR (e.g., shortwave infrared, 1000-2500 nm) will enhance the detection of other minerals formed by aqueous processes.

Astrobiology. October 2008, 8(5): 1023-1047.

A search for evidence of cryptic life in the subsurface region of a fractured Paleozoic volcanosedimentary deposit near the source waters of the Rio Tinto River (Iberian pyrite belt, southwest Spain) was carried out by Mars Astrobiology Research and Technology Experiment (MARTE) project investigators in 2003 and 2004. This conventional deep-drilling experiment is referred to as the MARTE ground truth drilling project. Boreholes were drilled at three sites, and samples from extracted cores were analyzed with light microscopy, scanning electron microscopy-energy dispersive spectroscopy (SEM-EDS), X-ray diffraction (XRD), and Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy. Core leachates were analyzed with ion chromatography, and borehole fluids were analyzed with ion and gas chromatography. Key variables of the groundwater system (e.g., pO2, pH, and salinity) exhibit huge ranges probably due to surficial oxygenation of overall reducing waters, physical mixing of waters, and biologically mediated water-rock interactions.

Immediate openings for enthusiastic Post-doctoral Fellows in the Department of Biochemistry at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. The aim of our laboratory is to understand the molecular interactions that the ribosome makes with different regulatory factors at various stages of the translation cycle (Cell (2005) 123(7) 1255-66; Science (2006) 313(5795) 1935-42; RNA (2007) 13(6) 817-23; Nature Structural & Molecular Biology (2007) 14(8) 733-7). Our group primarily uses the structural biology technique of X-ray crystallography in addition to complementary biochemical and biophysical techniques to address function in vitro.

Our group is investigating bacterial spore viability in extreme environments. We currently focus on the following specific areas: (1) development of an endospore viability assay based on dipicolinic acid detection, (2) investigation of the microbial ecology of desert soils, permafrost, and Antarctic ice, (3) development of field-instrumentation for deployment in extreme environments. This works relates to NASA s strategic goals of investigating past or present habitable environment on Mars or other worlds by focusing on the boundary conditions for life in extreme environments on Earth. Deadline: Feb 1, 2009

Source: [NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP)]

Observations of the surface of the inner planets, the satellites and rings of the outer planets, asteroids and comets across the spectral range from ultraviolet through active and passive microwaves; studies of meteorites and cosmic dust; theory and modeling relevant to the origin and evolution of the solid bodies of the solar system; development of approaches to the detection and characterization of solar systems around other stars. Deadline: Feb 1, 2009

Source: [NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP)]

NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program: Bacterial Spore Viability in Extreme Environments

NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., has released a Cooperative Agreement Notice to solicit proposals to administer the Education Associates Program. The EAP is a unique self-sustaining program dedicated to workforce development education. The program allows NASA scientists and managers to tap higher education institutions for students and faculty in a quick turn-around process. It provides participants hands-on experience with NASA scientists, engineers and program managers on a range of NASA projects and missions. Students receive academic credit for the experience. Through this program, NASA demonstrates its commitment to attract students into NASA's education pipeline and provides competency-building research and education opportunities for faculty, with a special emphasis on those from underrepresented and underserved groups. The EAP will provide opportunities to students majoring in fields related to NASA's science and technology interests and to faculty in STEM disciplines.

NASA Ames has developed a nanosensor technology for high sensitive and low power chemical sensing using nanostructure, single walled carbon nanotubes (SWNT's), combined with silicon-based micro fabrication and micromachining process. Due to large surface area, low surface energy barrier and high thermal and mechanical stability, nanostructured chemical sensors offer higher sensitivity, lower power consumption and a more robust solution than most state-of-the art systems making them attractive for space and defense applications, as well as a variety of commercial applications. Leveraging the micromachining technology, the light weight and compact sensors can be fabricated, in wafer scale for mass production, with high yield and at low cost. Such sensors have drawn attention from the space community for global weather monitoring, space exploration, life search in the universe, and launch pad fuel leak detection and in-flight cabin monitoring and engine operation monitoring.

We are developing the remote sensing techniques based on combined Raman spectrometer and UV fluorescence instrument suite for biogenic organics detections and characterizations. Our key step is to target the optimal instrument performance based on the systematic laboratory investigation and field- testing. Our measurement goals are: (1) ppm to ppb detection limits for organic molecules from natural samples without exaction or any preparation, (2) characterization of types of organic compounds based on complementary Raman and fluorescent signatures at sufficient detail to indicate possible biological origin. We will also incorporate the ultra sensitive spectroscopy technique for trace detection using surface enhanced Raman spectroscopy. The effort includes laboratory instrument technique and field instrument design with fiber optical probes. Deadline: 5:00 PM EST February 1, 2009.

Comets are the deep freezers of dust and ices extant in the early solar nebula at the time of the formation of the giant planets. Astromineralogy is the study of the chemical and structural properties of the dust grains. Studying the dust mineralogy in comets and protoplanetary disks, and, in particular, the amorphous and crystalline silicates, probes the relative abundances of interstellar grains and grains thermally altered or condensed in the inner hot regions of disks, respectively. Research combines analysis and modeling of Spitzer and ground-based spectroscopy of comets as well as radiative transfer modeling of protoplanetary disks to further our understanding of the thermal processing and radial transport of dust in protoplanetary disks at the early epochs of planetesimal formation. Deadline: 5:00 PM EST February 1, 2009.

This research focuses on the general circulation and climate system of Mars. There have been 7 successful spacecraft missions to Mars in the past 10 years returning valuable new data about the thermal structure of the atmosphere, the seasonal cycles of dust, water, and carbon dioxide, and the nature of the surface and subsurface. Our group interprets these data using a Mars General Circulation Model. We use the model to simulate the observations and determine what physical and dynamical processes are responsible for them. The model includes a full surface heat budget, a cloud microphysics package, a two-stream radiation code for gases and aerosols, a level-2 boundary layer scheme, mass conserving tracer transport algorithms, and CO2 condensation/sublimation physics. Topics we are currently studying include coupling between the present day dust, water, and CO2 cycles, the effect of orbital changes on past climates, and the nature of the early Martian atmosphere when surface pressures were thought to be higher than they are today. The goal of this work is to understand how the Martian atmosphere and climate system have evolved through time. Deadline: Feb 1, 2009

Members of the Astrochemistry Laboratory propose and carry out measurements, observations and modeling of key rates and/or fundamental quantities that control important chemical processes in astrophysical and planetary environments or that yield the chemical and isotopic compositions of solar system bodies. Members also perform simulations of natural processes or synthesize simplified analog samples of natural materials in order to better understand the unexpected consequences of natural events or to record the spectroscopic properties of well characterized samples for comparison with observations. Deadline: Feb 1, 2009

Source: [NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP)]

We are engaged in developing the near-infrared camera (NIRCam) and mid-infrared instrument (MIRI) of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and are planning on using these instruments to observe transiting exoplanets. This work is being done in conjunction with exoplanet theorists and other JWST team members and should predict what scientific results will be possible with JWST. We are also investigating direct imaging coronagraphic exoplanet missions and are developing a state-of-the-art Phase Induced Amplitude Apodization coronagraph testbed in our Ames Coronagraph Experiment Laboratory. Deadline: February 1st, 2009

Source: [NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP)]

Our groups work focuses on characterizing microbial ecology and biogeochemistry in natural ecosystems that are relevant in an astrobiological context. We are particularly interested in understanding how the distribution and activities of microbial populations are shaped by energy flow. Deadline: 5:00 PM EST February 1, 2009.

Source: [NASA Graduate Student Researchers Program (GSRP)]