June 2009

Cosmic rays represent one of the most fascinating research themes in modern astronomy and physics. Significant progress is being made toward an understanding of the astrophysics of the sources of cosmic rays and the physics of interactions in the ultrahigh-energy range. This is possible because several new experiments in these areas have been initiated. Cosmic rays may hold answers to a great number of fundamental questions, but they also shape our natural habitat and influence the radiation environment of our planet Earth. The importance of the study of cosmic rays has been acknowledged in many fields, including space weather science and astrobiology.

A central question of astrobiology concerns the origin and distribution of life in the Universe. For this reason, astrobiology can be considered to fall within the science called transitional biology. If we accept that life originated by a process of prebiotic chemical evolution, the next question concerns the nature of the transitional pathway from inanimate chemical systems to the first forms of life on Earth. These possible transitional states are the subject matter of transitional biology as a discipline.

The 39+/-2Ma Haughton impact structure on Devon Island comprises a thick target succession of sedimentary rocks, mainly carbonates. The carbonates contain pre-impact organic matter, including fossil biological markers. Haughton is located in an area where no major thermal event has affected the sedimentary succession after heating caused by impact. This makes Haughton uniquely suitable for studies concerning the preservation of fossil biological markers following an impact event.

The importance of hypersaline environments over geological time, the discovery of similar habitats on Mars, and the importance of methane as a biosignature gas combine to compel an understanding of the factors important in controlling methane released from hypersaline microbial mat environments. To further this understanding, changes in stable carbon isotopes of methane and possible methanogenic substrates in microbial mat communities were investigated as a function of salinity here on Earth. Microbial mats were sampled from four different field sites located within salterns in Baja California Sur, Mexico. Salinities ranged from 50 to 106 parts per thousand (ppt).

Fluorescent in situ hybridization (FISH) and 16S rDNA analysis were used to characterize the endolithic colonization of silica-rich rhyolitic glass (obsidian) in a barren terrestrial volcanic environment in Iceland. The rocks were inhabited by a diverse eubacterial assemblage. In the interior of the rock, we identified cyanobacterial and algal 16S (plastid) sequences and visualized phototrophs by FISH, which demonstrates that molecular methods can be used to characterize phototrophs at the limits of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR).

Once it was established that the spaceflight environment was not a drastic impediment to plant growth, a remaining space biology question was whether long-term spaceflight exposure could cause changes in subsequent generations, even if they were returned to a normal Earth environment. In this study, we used a genomic approach to address this question. We tested whether changes in gene expression patterns occur in wheat plants that are several generations removed from growth in space, compared to wheat plants with no spaceflight exposure in their lineage. Wheat flown on Mir for 167 days in 1991 formed viable seeds back on Earth.

We have used the Solar Tower Atmospheric Cherenkov Effect Experiment (STACEE) high-energy gamma-ray detector to look for fast blue-green laser pulses from the vicinity of 187 stars. The STACEE detector offers unprecedented light-collecting capability for the detection of nanosecond pulses from such lasers. We estimate STACEE's sensitivity to be approximately 10photons/m2 at a wavelength of 420nm.

With the assumption that future attempts to explore our Solar System for life will be limited by economic constraints, we have formulated a series of principles to guide future searches: (1) the discovery of life that has originated independently of our own would have greater significance than evidence for panspermia; (2) an unambiguous identification of living beings (or the fully preserved, intact remains of such beings) is more desirable than the discovery of markers or fossils that would inform us of the presence of life but not its composition; (3) we should initially seek carbon-based life that employs a set of monomers and polymers substantially different than our own, which would effectively balance the need for ease of detection with that of establishing a separate origin; (4) a "follow-the-carbon" strategy appears optimal for locating such alternative carbon-based life.

Date/Time: Monday June 29, 2009 11:00AM Pacific

Presenter: Chris Scholin, Molecular Biologist, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI)

Abstract: In late April 2009, a team of MBARI researchers tested the world's only deep-sea robotic DNA lab beneath the waters of Monterey Bay. This instrument is the latest version of the Environmental Sample Processor (ESP), which MBARI molecular biologist Chris Scholin has been developing for over 10 years. The ESP is a self-contained robotic laboratory that collects samples of seawater and tests these samples for different types of genetic material, such as DNA.

MIRS 2009 Sabbatical Awards

The NAI is pleased to announce its selections for the 2009 NAI-Minority Institution Research Support (NAI-MIRS) program. The MIRS program provides summer sabbaticals, follow-up support, and travel opportunities for faculty and students from minority serving institutions.

This year the following two faculty members have been selected to lead new research in astrobiology.

Dr. Rakesh Mogul, from the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona will work with Kasthuri Venkateswaran, at JPL, on the characterization of Acinetobacter radioresistens 50v1, an extremophile isolated from the Mars Odyssey Spacecraft.

Dr. Aaron Cavosie, from the University of Puerto Rico, Mayaguez, will work with John W. Valley, at the Univ. of Wisconsin, Madison, on developing methods to identify impact evidence from the early Earth: Isotopic and structural characteristics of detrital shocked zircon from the Vredefort Dome (South Africa).

For more information on the MIRS program, visit

[Source: NAI Newsletter]

The NAI and the American Philosophical Society (APS) jointly sponsor graduate students, postdocs, and junior scientists for field studies through the Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology. For more information see

We are very pleased to present the young investigators selected for 2009:

Timetree of Life

Scientists and non-scientists now have easy access to information about when living species and their ancestors originated, information that previously was difficult to find or inaccessible. Free access to the information is part of the new Timetree of Life initiative developed by NAI's Blair Hedges, professor of biology with the Penn State Astrobiology Research Center, and Sudhir Kumar, a professor of life sciences at Arizona State University.

The Timetree of Life project debuted with the simultaneous release of a book titled The Timetree of Life (Oxford University Press), which is written by a consortium of 105 experts on specific groups of organisms and is edited by Hedges and Kumar.

"The TimeTree of Life web tool belongs to a new genre of resources that lets anyone easily mine knowledge previously locked up in technical research articles, without needing to know the jargon of the field," said Kumar. "For example, if you type in 'cat' and 'dog,'" Hedges said, "the program will navigate through the timetree of life to the point where the cat and dog species split, and it will find all the studies bearing on that divergence. Within a few seconds, you will learn that your pet cat and dog diverged in evolutionary time about 50 to 60 million years ago." For more information:

[Source: NAI Newsletter]

Expanding Horizons in Montana

"Microbial Bingo" was the name of the game in a recent outreach event for more than 50 junior high-aged girls from across Montana. The girls came to Montana State University's astrobiology laboratories this Spring for "That's Hot! Investigating the Edge of Life" as part of the national program called Expanding Your Horizons. The girls learned about MSU's research in Yellowstone National Park, and how astrobiology might give us new insights into the early earth as well as life on other planets. The girls then became scientists themselves, using observational data in a race to fill bingo cards by identifying "mystery" micro-organisms.

Expanding Your Horizons is a national program designed to introduce girls to careers in science, math, technology and engineering. It was started in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1974.

by Pier-Luigi Luisi

The 2009 San Sebastian meeting on OQOL was the follow-up to an analogous meeting held in Erice, Sicily three years ago. The general idea was to identify and discuss the areas in the field that are still "in the darkness", i.e. remain poorly understood despite their importance. We asked what were the reasons of our persisting ignorance, and what could we do to shed light on the "dark" areas. The meeting was not organized as a series of standard lectures (the usual "talk-and-run-away" format). Instead, it was centered on several selected questions, one per half-day, which were first discussed by a panel of experts and then by all participants. The questions had been previously chosen through worldwide polling of researchers in the field. It was a very intense meeting - in four days we covered eight questions.

By Michael Wilson

The NAI held a strategic science initiative workshop in Tempe, AZ on May 13-15, to identify areas where increased collaboration between the funded NAI teams could lead to greater scientific insights and productivity. One of the initiative areas focused on origins of life research; the origins initiative was chaired by George Cody (Carnegie team) and John Peters (Montana State team) and Stephen Freeland (University of Hawaii team).By Michael Wilson

The NAI held a strategic science initiative workshop in Tempe, AZ on May 13-15, to identify areas where increased collaboration between the funded NAI teams could lead to greater scientific insights and productivity. One of the initiative areas focused on origins of life research; the origins initiative was chaired by George Cody (Carnegie team) and John Peters (Montana State team) and Stephen Freeland (University of Hawaii team).

Comments are being solicited from members of the astrobiology community on the following paper(s) that will be submitted to the 2009-2011 Planetary Science Decadal Survey. Papers will be revised based on community feedback. Additonal papers will be posted here as they become available.

Please sent comments to no later than July 31, 2009.
For more information on the decadal survey, visit:

The National Space Biomedical Research Institute (NSBRI) is soliciting applications for its Postdoctoral Fellowship Program. Two-year fellowships are available in any U.S. laboratory carrying out space-related biomedical or biotechnological research that supports the NSBRI's goals. NSBRI research addresses and seeks solutions to the various health concerns associated with long-duration human space exploration.

Applicants must submit proposals with the support of a mentor and institution, and all proposals will be evaluated by a peer-review panel. The program is open to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, or persons with pre-existing visas obtained through their sponsoring institutions that permit postdoctoral training for the project's duration.

Detailed program and application submission information is available on the NSBRI Web site at . Notices of intent and applications must be submitted through the NASA Solicitation and Proposal Integrated Review and Evaluation System (NSPIRES). Notices of intent are due July 7, 2009, and the application deadline is August 4, 2009.

Replies to this announcement email will go unanswered. Questions may be directed to David A. Watson, Ph.D., NSBRI Postdoctoral Fellowship Program, email:, or phone: 713-798-7412.

NASA has selected four proposals for research to help understand space radiation's affects on human living in space. NASA selected proposals from the New York University School of Medicine in New York, the University of Texas Medical Branch in Houston, Loma Linda University in California and Georgetown University in Washington. The universities will work with collaborating organizations around the country.

These institutions will become NASA Specialized Centers of Research. They will consist of teams of investigators who have complementary skills and work together to solve a closely focused set of research questions. The proposals support the space radiation program element within NASA's Human Research Program.

This is a National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Research Announcement (NRA) that solicits hypothesis-driven Fundamental Space Biology (FSB) research proposals that will answer fundamental questions about how physiological systems respond to gravity, or to changes in gravity, using animal (excluding single cell organisms and cell culture) model specimens. This solicitation (NRA NNH09ZTT003N), entitled, " Research Opportunities In Space Life Sciences: Fundamental Space Biology - Animal Physiology," will be available on or about May 26, 2009, by opening the NASA Research Opportunities homepage at and then linking through the menu listings "Solicitations" to "Open Solicitations."

Full notice below

NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD) intends to release a Draft Announcement of Opportunity (AO) in June 2009 for Discovery Program missions. The Discovery Program conducts Principal Investigator (PI)-led space science investigations in SMD's planetary programs under a not-to-exceed cost cap. It is anticipated that approximately two to three Discovery investigations will be selected for 9-month Phase A concept studies through this AO. At the conclusion of these concept studies, it is planned that one Discovery investigation will be selected to continue into Phase B and subsequent mission phases. There will be no Missions of Opportunity (MO) solicited as part of this AO. All MO are now solicited through the Stand Alone Mission of Opportunity Notice (SALMON) AO.

Full notice below

This amendment establishes a new program element in Appendix D.11 entitled "Technology Development for Exoplanet Missions." This new program element solicits proposals to develop specific technologies (TRL 4-6) that feed into key exoplanet exploration measurement techniques. The measurement techniques upon which future Exoplanet Exploration Program missions are likely to be based include astrometry, coronagraphy, interferometry, and precision photometry.