February 2009

Bacteria are not usually thought of as having a natural habitat like a mammal or insect, but indirect evidence has suggested that, if anything, most of the early evolution of bacteria was in the marine environment (oceans) and not on land. Surprisingly, NAI researchers from Penn State, Fabia Battistuzzi (now at Arizona State University) and Blair Hedges, found evidence that a large group of bacteria--two-thirds of all ~10,000 described species--trace their ancestry back to a life on land, not in the oceans. These bacteria have many useful adaptations, including the production of oxygen, which now may be tied to their land-loving lifestyle. Their article appeared in the February issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution.

n November 26, 2008, volunteers in programs within the NASA Nationwide Consortium participated in a two-hour, introductory training telecon covering the basic principles of astrobiology, sponsored by NAI's WISC team and JPL. The Consortium includes many of NASA's volunteer-based organizations such as the Solar System Ambassadors, the Night Sky Network, the Aerospace Education Services Project, the Explorer Schools, and the Educator Astronauts. These volunteers reach many thousands of teachers, students, and public audiences every year in assemblies and other presentations.

The Life in Extreme Environments Educator Conference, hosted by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Education Office, was held on January 24-25, 2009 in JPL's von Karman auditorium. E/PO Leads from NAI's teams at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, JPL-Titan, and JPL-Icy Worlds participated in producing the event. Eighty-one educators attended. The program included an introduction to astrobiology, as well as more detailed presentations outlining astrobiology research into extrasolar planet habitability, pre-biotic chemistry, spectral "bio"signatures, and planetary protection. NAI educational materials were distributed.

The NAI Postdoctoral Fellowship Program provides opportunities for Ph.D. scientists and engineers of unusual promise and ability to perform research on problems largely of their own choosing, yet compatible with the research interests of NASA and the member teams of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. The next award cycle that the NAI will be participating in will be the March 1, 2009 application deadline. For additional information about the program see .

[Source: NAI Newsletter]

Iceland, 29 June to 13 July 2009

Deadline: Applications due March 1, 2009

The NASA Astrobiology Institute and the Nordic Astrobiology Network will conduct a summer school on the role of water in the evolution of life in the cosmos - in Iceland on the above dates. The school is intended for students and post-docs in astrobiology-related subjects (biology, chemistry, physics, astronomy, geosciences etc.)

The Arizona State University Astrobiology Team invites applications for a full-time postdoctoral Research Scientist (non-tenure track) position in Microbial Ecology/Physiology. The successful candidate will have a leading role in the research emphasis "The Stoichiometry of Life" which is aimed at understanding the fundamental relationships between the elemental composition of microbes and their environment, through investigations in the field, the laboratory, and the genomic and geologic records of the history of life. For more information:

[Source: NAI Newsletter]

Penn State will once again host the Astrobiology Summer Program (ASP), supported by the National Science Foundation and NASA Astrobiology Institute. Undergraduates with an interest in astrobiology and contemplating a career in the sciences are encouraged to apply. Participants receive a stipend, travel, and living expenses, and conduct research for ten weeks at Pennsylvania State University under the guidance of astrobiology faculty mentors. Among the summer activities are field trips to NASA Headquarters, NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center, the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum and Udvar-Hazy Center. The application deadline is February 15th, 2009. For more information, visit or contact Blair Hedges,

[Source: NAI Newsletter]

Please join NAI in congratulating Jim Elser of the new Arizona State University (ASU) Team on his election as Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). He and the other newly elected fellows will be recognized Feb. 14 at the Fellows forum, during the 2009 AAAS annual meeting in Chicago.

Starting on February 23rd, 2009, each of the NAI teams will be giving one hour overview seminars that describe the work they will be performing as members of the NAI. These seminars, which will be broadcast via videoconference and web, will provide an opportunity to find out more about the science, EPO and other activities being performed by the NAI teams. These seminars will take place at 11am Pacific time. The schedule of the talks follows:

At the January NAI Executive Council meeting, each of NAI's Principal Investigators delivered presentations outlining the science of their teams. Those presentations are now available as downloadable podcasts from the NAI website. For more information and to download the podcasts, visit

[Source: NAI Newsletter]

The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) is accepting proposals to the 2009 NAI Director's Discretionary Fund (DDF). Proposals will be accepted at any time until June 15, 2009. Proposals submitted after that date will be considered for funding as part of the NAI 2010 DDF. For more information:

[Source: NAI Newsletter]

Geological and biological evidence suggests that Earth was warm during most of its early history, despite the fainter young Sun. Upper bounds on the atmospheric CO2 concentration in the Late Archean/Paleoproterozoic (2.82.2 Ga) from paleosol data suggest that additional greenhouse gases must have been present.

Availability of reduced nitrogen is considered a prerequisite for the genesis of life from prebiotic precursors. Most atmospheric and oceanic models for the Hadean Earth predict a mildly oxidizing environment that is conducive to the formation and stability of only oxidized forms of nitrogen.

Based on new image data from the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), a case can be made that several structures in Vernal Crater, Arabia Terra are ancient springs. This interpretation is based on comprehensive geomorphologic analysis coupled with assessment of multiple hypotheses.

Liquid water is essential to life as we know it on Earth; therefore, the search for water on Mars is a critical component of the search for life. Olivine, a mineral identified as present on Mars, has been proposed as an indicator of the duration and characteristics of water because it dissolves quickly, particularly under low-pH conditions. The duration of olivine persistence relative to glass under conditions of aqueous alteration reflects the pH and temperature of the reacting fluids.

This study identifies transcriptional regulation of stress response element (STRE) genes in space in the model eukaryotic organism, Saccharomyces cerevisiae. To determine transcription-factor dependence, gene expression changes in space were examined in strains bearing green fluorescent proteintagged (GFP-tagged) reporters for YIL052C (Sfp1 dependent with stress), YST-2 (Sfp1/Rap1 dependent with stress), or SSA4 (Msn4 dependent with stress), along with strains of SSA4-GFP and YIL052C-GFP with individual deletions of the Msn4 or Sfp1.

Chirality is an excellent indicator of life, but naturally occurring astrobiological (as well as terrestrial) samples nearly always exhibit massive depolarizing light scattering, which renders conventional polarimeters useless. For astrobiological applications, we instead consider a novel polarimeter originally developed for non-invasive human-glucose measurement. It involves deliberately rotating in time the plane of polarization of a linearly polarized beam and detecting the shift in the plane of the rotating linearly polarized component of the transmitted light from a chiral sample relative to the input polarization plane. We find that this polarimeter can operate in 3 orders of magnitude more depolarizing scattering than conventional polarimeters. Furthermore, it can also be designed to be lightweight, compact, and energy efficient.

Astrobiology. December 2008, 8(6): 1061-1069.

Come join an interdisciplinary gathering of scientists, artists and writers as they explore human futures in fact and fiction at the annual CONTACT conference.

WHERE: NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., Building 943 located at the main gate. To reach NASA Ames, take U.S. Highway 101 to the Moffett Field, NASA Parkway exit and drive east on Moffett Boulevard towards the main gate and bear right into the parking lot. Building 943 is located across the street from the large white dome.

WHEN: Friday, April 3, 2009 to Sunday, April 5, 2009

Come hear an interesting exchange of ideas as Lynn Rothschild, evolutionary biologist and astrobiologist at NASA Ames Research Center, and Father George Coyne, Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory, astronomer and Jesuit priest, discuss "Are We Alone? The Dance of the Fertile Universe." Ames Center Director, S. Pete Worden will moderate as they consider the fact that while the potential for life was present at the Big Bang, Earth may be the only place that promise was realized. They will also discuss from their different perspectives what niches life may have found since the Big Bang and muse on the significance of the fertile universe.

Editor's note: I just learned that my long time friend Mel Averner died last night. I will write something more lengthy at some point. Suffice it to say there were two people who taught more more than anyone else while I was at NASA - and after I left. Dick Keefe and Mel Averner. Not a thing happened in NASA's space life science programs in the 80's, 90's and recent years that was not directly or indirectly affected by Dick and Mel. Dick passed away several years ago. Mel was full of life and ideas up to the last moments of his life. I had a chance to speak with him last week. The conversation lasted 9 minutes. Long enough for him to say goodbye to me and for me to do so in exchange. Many of his friends had a chance to do the same. In so doing, Mel left little seeds in our minds - seeds that will continue to affect the way that we look at life on Earth and beyond for decades to come. I hope Mel's friends will take the time to post their thoughts below.