December 2010

Exclusive Interview: Discoverer of Arsenic Bacteria, in the Eye of the Storm, Science Now

"Q: So, NASA approached you about doing a press conference, and you thought that was a good idea? F.W.-S.: I wouldn't say I thought it was a good or bad idea. I'd never been to a press conference, but it made good sense to me that my mom should know what I'd been up to, and I love teaching. So, it made sense to me at that level, in terms of, again, bringing what we did to the public. But we weren't clearly prepared, in terms of understanding how it might be, again, with the new types of media that are really rather amazing, what was exactly going to happen."

Earlier posts

NASA announces its intent to participate in the 62nd International Astronautical Congress, or IAC, and requests that full-time graduate students attending U.S. universities or colleges respond to this "Call for Abstracts." The IAC -- which is organized by the International Astronautical Federation, or IAF; the International Academy of Astronautics, or IAA; and the International Institute of Space Law, or IISL, -- is the largest space-related conference worldwide and selects an average of 1000 scientific papers every year. The upcoming IAC will be held Oct. 3-7, 2011, in Cape Town, South Africa. NASA's participation in this event is an ongoing effort to continue to connect NASA with the astronautical and space international community.

This "Call for Abstracts" is a precursor to a subsequent submission of a final paper, which may be presented at the 62nd IAC. Student authors are invited to submit an abstract regarding an original, unpublished paper that has not been submitted in any other forum. A NASA technical review panel of scientists and/or officials will select abstracts. Many students and professors are involved in NASA-related research. Persons submitting abstracts are strongly encouraged to seek advice from professors who are conducting NASA research and/or from NASA scientists and engineers.

Abstract Preparation

-- Abstracts must be 400 words or less.
-- Abstracts must be written in English.
-- Abstracts cannot include formulas, tables or drawings.
-- Select the symposium and session in which you wish to post your abstract. Please view the IAC brochure at for list of sessions and more details.

Abstracts must be related to NASA's ongoing vision for space exploration and fit into one of the following categories:

-- Science and Exploration
-- Systems sustaining missions including life, microgravity, space exploration, space debris and Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, or SETI.
-- Applications and Operations
-- Ongoing and future operational applications, including Earth observation, communication, navigation, human space endeavors and small satellites.
-- Technology
-- Common technologies to space systems including astrodynamics, structures, power and propulsion.
-- Infrastructures
-- Systems sustaining space missions including space systems, transportation, future systems and safety.
-- Space and Society
-- Interaction of space with society including education, policy and economics, history, and law.

The full text of the abstract must be submitted electronically in the prescribed format at no later than 11:59:59 p.m. EST on Feb. 7, 2011.

If you have a question or concern about the programmatic or the electronic submission of your abstract, please e-mail, and you will receive a response within two (2) business days.

Universite Cadi Ayyad, Ibn Battuta Centre, Marrakech, Morocco

Joint ESA/NASA Workshop and Field Trip
February 7-9, 2011


Charles Cockell (Open University, UK),
Oliver Angerer (ESA),
Mary Voytek (NASA),
Gian Gabriele Ori (IRSPS, Italy and Ibn Battuta Centre, Morocco),
Kamal Taj-Eddine (Universite Cady Ayyad and Ibn Battuta Centre, Morocco)

Geobiology in Space Exploration is a meeting of talks and discussions to understand the full range of the contributions of geobiology to robotic and human space exploration, from life detection to practical applications of geobiology and geomicrobiology. Its purpose is to develop a road map of geobiology for future space missions. It is co-organised by the ESA Topical Team: Geomicrobiology for Space Settlement and Exploration.

Topics to be covered at the meeting include:

1) microbe-mineral interactions, biosignatures and the search for life elsewhere,

2) use of microorganisms in practical applications in space exploration,

3) space missions involving aspects of geobiology.

4) analog sites for the study of other planetary environments.

The meeting will begin midday on Monday 7th and will finish on Wednesday February 9th and will be held at the Universite Cadi Ayyad (Morocco). The meeting will then be followed by a voluntary field trip for interested participants to investigate geomicrobiology and geology from Precambrian to Quaternary in the Atlas Mountains.

The output of this workshop will be a document/paper setting out directions and potential in geobiology applied to space.

Visit for further information.

From July 21-August 1, 2010, five K-12 and informal educators joined scientists from the Arizona State University (ASU) and Montana State University (MSU) teams of the NASA Astrobiology Institute for a two week field experience as part of the ASU Astrobiology Virtual Field Trip (VFT) initiative. To address the need for better teacher preparation in STEM education, these teachers worked directly with scientists studying the thermal environments at Yellowstone National Park. They experienced the thrill of doing authentic field research in a breathtaking setting! These educators are an integral part of the VFT project and will provide valuable input on the design of the Web interface, its functionality in a classroom setting and related K-12 curriculum materials. Their collaboration with the ASU Astrobiology team will continue through Spring 2011 as the virtual field trip takes shape. [Source: NAI Newsletter]

This summer, NAI's team at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) hosted the ExxonMobil Bernard Harris Summer Science Camp in Astrobiology. The camp is a free, academic program of The Harris Foundation, named for Bernard A. Harris, MD, an accomplished NASA astronaut, physician, and entrepreneur, and the first African American to walk in space.

The theme of this year's camp, held from June 12-25th, was The Quest for Life, and 50 middle school students participated. During the two exciting weeks, students went on several field trips to Albany Pine Bush, Howe Caverns, Rocky Hill Dinosaur Park, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Students also took many classes such as the Mars Student Imaging Project, and completed a Field Trip to the Moon. The main activity for the students was to propose a mission to search for life on either Mars, Europa, or Titan. [Source: NAI Newsletter]

The 2011 Gordon Research Conference on the Origins of Solar Systems will take place at Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, MA 17-22 July 2011. This unique interdisciplinary meeting includes astronomers and astrophysicists interested in star and planet formation, planetary scientists and cosmochemists interested in the early history, structure, and evolution of the Solar System, as well as scientists in related disciplines. By bringing together this mix of expertise the conference attempts to address fundamental questions that are not tractable within the confines of just one discipline. Our goal is to understand whether planetary systems like our own, and the potential for habitability that they represent are the exception or the rule in the Milky Way galaxy.

The focus of the 2011 meeting (the 11th since this series began twenty years ago) will be "Composition of Forming Planets: A Tool to Understand Processes". Topics covered will include: 1) the initial conditions for planet formation in circumstellar disks, including estimates of solar nebula composition from the Genesis mission; 2) the evolution of the physical structure of the gas and dust from which planets form; 3) progress in our theoretical understanding of the major physical processes that control planet formation; 4) the interplay between disk dynamics and disk chemistry in determining the composition of forming planets including new results from the Herschel Space Telescope; 5) meteoritic constraints on the physical and chemical conditions in the solar nebula; 6) the role of giant impacts in the structure and evolution of forming planets; 7) satellites and rings of giant planets as mini-laboratories to study the process of planet formation; 8) current census of extra-solar planets including new results from the Kepler and COROT missions as well as other facilities; 9) the essential chemical conditions for life and whether those are readily obtained through our current understanding of planet formation; and many other topics.

The conference will continue the usual format of invited lectures, extended discussion, and poster sessions. The meeting provides an excellent opportunity for young researchers to present their latest research results and to participate in the dynamic informal conversations that are typical of a Gordon Conference. We encourage young scientists, including graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, to attend. Special efforts will be made to promote interactions between invited speakers and junior participants and we expect to provide some financial support to facilitate the latter's participation.

For more information please visit the Gordon Research Conference website: [Source: NAI Newsletter]

NASA-Funded Astrobiology Research Discovers Earth Life Built With Arsenic, NASA

"NASA-funded astrobiology research has changed the fundamental knowledge about what comprises all known life on Earth. Researchers conducting tests in the harsh environment of Mono Lake in California have discovered the first known microorganism on Earth able to thrive and reproduce using the toxic chemical arsenic. The microorganism substitutes arsenic for phosphorus in its cell components."

Second Genesis on Earth?, Washington Post

"News of the discovery caused a scientific commotion, including calls to NASA from the White House and Congress asking whether a second line of earthly life has been found."

Astrobiologists: Deadly arsenic breathes life into organisms, Arizona State University

"Evidence that the toxic element arsenic can replace the essential nutrient phosphorus in biomolecules of a naturally occurring bacterium expands the scope of the search for life beyond Earth, according to Arizona State University scientists who are part of a NASA-funded research team reporting findings in the Dec. 2 online Science Express."

This past summer, the Penn State Astrobiology Research team offered a 5-day teacher professional development workshop for 20 in-service educators currently teaching grades 6-12. The educators received two Penn State graduate credits and more than 15 different NASA educational materials and resources. They also received and built Galileoscopes to utlilize in their classroom. The workshop focused on topics ranging from optics to spectrometry to current telescopes and their search for extra solar planets. Astrobiology basics were discussed and activities were facilitated from the Life on Earth and Elsewhere Educator Resource Guide. The workshop is co-funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) through the Penn State Astrobiology Research Center (PSARC) and the NASA Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium. For more information:

A new show from the California Academy of Sciences, Life: A Cosmic Story opens on November 6th and will play through late 2011 in the Morrison Planetarium, the largest all-digital planetarium in the world. With input from NAI and SETI Institute scientists, Life uses the latest scientific knowledge to examine an age-old question: how did life on Earth begin? Starting with the first stars and ending with the tremendous biological diversity on Earth today, Life will show you that the human pedigree is actually 13.7 billion years in the making. Watch the trailer here:

Narrated by two-time Academy Award winner Jodie Foster, Life begins in a grove of towering redwoods, majestic emblems of Northern California. From there, the audience "shrinks" dramatically as it enters a single redwood leaf and then a redwood cell, learning that despite their unique appearance, redwoods are composed of the same basic molecules as all other organisms on Earth. After this opening statement of shared ancestry, the audience launches on a journey through time, witnessing key events since the Big Bang that set the stage for life. The first stars ignite, galaxies coalesce, and entire worlds take shape.

On the early Earth, two scenarios for the dawn of life are presented - one near a turbulent, deep-sea hydrothermal vent, and the other in a primordial "hot puddle" on a volcanic island. From these microscopic beginnings, life transformed the entire Earth as it evolved and diversified: filling the atmosphere with oxygen, turning the continents green, and altering global climate patterns. The 25-minute show ends with a review of geological evidence and the connectedness of all living things on Earth. [Source: NAI Newsletter]

Keith's note: Multiple, reliable sources within the Astrobiology community tell me that NASA's Astrobiology announcement tomorrow concerns Arsenic-based biochemistry and the implications for the origin of life on Earth, how it may have happened more than once on our planet, and the implications for life arising elsewhere in the universe. NASA has not found life on any other world.

That said, as a biologist, I have to say that this is exciting stuff. It shows that other biochemistries are possible - more than just "life as we know it" and that the possible places where "life" could exist in the universe are now much more numerous as a result. What other biochemistries are possible? I am certain we'll be hearing much more about this.

Keith's 30 Nov note: As has happened before, NASA puts out advance notice of a provocative major discovery, media advisory and speculation goes into overdrive with titles of articles such as "Has NASA found life near Saturn?" based on a single, speculative blogger post.

Calm down folks. According to Alexis Madrial, a senior editor at The Atantic (and used to write for Wired) posting on Twitter "I'm sad to quell some of the @kottke-induced excitement about possible extraterrestrial life. I've seen the Science paper. It's not that." followed by "I'm obviously not the only one. It's available to journalists with access to embargoed EurekAlert content."

An article by several of the individuals (Benner, Wolfe-Simon) who will be participating in the telecon can be found below. Is NASA's announcement related to NASA's announcement? Who knows.

Signatures of a Shadow Biosphere, Astrobiology, Volume 9, Number 2, 2009 via The Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data System (A copy of the full article can be found here.) Authors: Paul C.W. Davies, Steven A. Benner, Carol E. Cleland, Charles H. Lineweaver, Christopher P. McKay, and Felisa Wolfe-Simon

"Astrobiologists are aware that extraterrestrial life might differ from known life, and considerable thought has been given to possible signatures associated with weird forms of life on other planets. So far, however, very little attention has been paid to the possibility that our own planet might also host communities of weird life. If life arises readily in Earth-like conditions, as many astrobiologists contend, then it may well have formed many times on Earth itself, which raises the question whether one or more shadow biospheres have existed in the past or still exist today. In this paper, we discuss possible signatures of weird life and outline some simple strategies for seeking evidence of a shadow biosphere."

Then there is this article by another one of the authors (Wolfe-Simon) dealing with putative life forms that use Arsenic instead of Phosphorus in their biochemistry. Again, the concept of a "shadow biosphere" and thoughts as to whether this can be applied to extraterrestrial locations are discussed.

Did nature also choose arsenic?, International Journal of Astrobiology, Volume 8, Issue 2 via via The Smithsonian/NASA Astrophysics Data System

"All known life requires phosphorus (P) in the form of inorganic phosphate (PO43- or Pi) and phosphate-containing organic molecules. Piserves as the backbone of the nucleic acids that constitute genetic material and as the major repository of chemical energy for metabolism in polyphosphate bonds. Arsenic (As) lies directly below P on the periodic table and so the two elements share many chemical properties, although their chemistries are sufficiently dissimilar that As cannot directly replace P in modern biochemistry. Arsenic is toxic because As and P are similar enough that organisms attempt this substitution. We hypothesize that ancient biochemical systems, analogous to but distinct from those known today, could have utilized arsenate in the equivalent biological role as phosphate. Organisms utilizing such 'weird life' biochemical pathways may have supported a 'shadow biosphere' at the time of the origin and early evolution of life on Earth or on other planets. Such organisms may even persist on Earth today, undetected, in unusual niches."

Are these articles related to NASA's announcement? Reliable sources within the Astrobiology community tell me that the announcement does indeed concern Arsenic-based biochemistry and the implications for the origin of life on Earth, how it may have happened more than once on our planet, and the implications for life arising elsewhere in the universe.

Close Encounters of the Media Kind, Columbia Journalism Review

"Posts at's Cosmic Log blog, Discover's Bad Astronomy blog, and at the independent NASA Watch blog also tried to quell the otherworldly hysteria. (Further efforts have since appeared at the Associated Press and Time.) ... "This shows how important an experienced, trained and authoritative science journalism staff of reporters and editors is," AP science reporter Seth Borenstein wrote in an e-mail, responding to questions about the blog frenzy. "While the blogosphere has the luxury of speculating, The Associated Press seeks to be the definitive source through careful reporting and knowledge of the subject area."

Date/Time: Monday, December 6, 2010 11:00AM Pacific
Presenter: Elizaveta Bonch-Osmolovskaya (Russian Academy of Sciences)

Abstract: Anaerobic thermophilic lithoautotrophic microorganisms inhabiting volcanic environments use inorganic energy substrates, electron acceptors and a carbon source of geothermal origin - performing, therefore, as primary producers in such ecosystems.

From the hot springs of Kamchatka Peninsula (Russia) strains of a new hyperthermophilic bacterium growing optimally at 80*C were isolated, and described as a novel genus and species Caldimicrobium rimae. This organism belongs to the Thermodesulfobacteria phylum and it can grow lithoautotrophically with molecular hydrogen reducing elemental sulfur or thiosulfate. Strains of C. rimae are also capable of oxidizing volatile fatty acids and alcohols - the fermentation products of organotrophic hyperthermophilic Archaea and Bacteria.

Another new isolate - Thermosulfurimonas dismutans, also representing a new genus in phylum Thermodesulfobacteria, was obtained from the deep-sea hydrothermal samples of Lau Basin, Pacific Ocean. This newly-identified organism is an obligate lithoatotroph growing at 92*C on a mineral medium by dismutation of sulfur compounds - elemental sulfur or thiosulfate, during which one molecule is oxidized to sulfate and another reduced to sulfide. The growth is obligately dependent on the presence of ferric oxide in the medium, which binds sulfide formed in the course of growth, maintaining its low concentration in the medium.

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a usual component of volcanic gases, both in terrestrial and submarine hot springs. The ability to grow anaerobically at 100% CO in the gas phase producing molecular hydrogen and CO2 was found to be widely spread among thermophilic prokaryotes - bacteria of phylum Firmicutes and members of the archaeal genus Thermococcales. However, if the concentration of CO in the gas phase was 5 to 45%, the range of microorganisms capable of hydrogenogenic CO-trophy became much wider. Among new organisms capable of this type of metabolism are hyperthermophilic bacteria of the Dyctioglomy phylum and the hyperthermophilic crenarchaeote Thermofilum lithoautotrophicus.

Formate can be formed abiotically in hydrothermal environments in the course of serpentinization reactions. We found that some representatives of the hyperthermophilic archaeal genus Thermococcus can grow on formate producing molecular hydrogen. The energy yield of this reaction was previously considered insufficient to support microbial growth.

These and other newly-identified thermophilic lithoautotrophic microorganisms able to use energy substrates, electron acceptors and a carbon source of geothermal origin can act as the base of a microbial food web that is not dependent on either solar energy, or of the modern biosphere. Such communities could be regarded as modern analogues of early Earth or extraterrestrial ecosystems.

For more information and participation instructions: [Source: NAI Newsletter]

The NAI has accepted an Affiliate Partnership proposal from the Instituto de Astrobiologia in Bogota, Colombia, led by Jorge Enrique Bueno Prieto of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. The goals of the Institute de Astrobiologia are:

* Contributing to scientific excellence, creativity and innovation for Astrobiology education and research in Latin America;
* Promoting interdisciplinarity in basic and engineering sciences; and
* Encouraging and inspiring children, young adults, and the general public in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) topics through Astrobiology.

The Instituto approaches these goals by:

* Promoting education and research in Astrobiology in schools and universities throughout Colombia;

* Developing research projects in Colombia's scientific centers;
* Training teachers in the interdisciplinary methods of Astrobiology; and
* Strengthening Astrobiology in Latin America.

The Instituto has partnership agreements with:

* Universidad de Antioquia--Institute of Physics;
* The Colombian Center for Genomics and Bioinformatics of Extreme Environments; and
* Parque Explora, an interactive science center in Medellin

The NAI and the Instituto de Astrobiologia envision working together initially in three areas: (1) programs to engage and train students and young researchers in Astrobiology; (2) the development of Spanish-language astrobiology materials for use in the United States and in Latin America; and (3) microbiology and related research on organisms from extreme environments.

For more information on NAI's International Partner Program: [Source: NAI Newsletter]

NAI collaborative tools were used to link people from around the globe

Using a suite of NAI collaborative tools, an NAI Workshop Without Walls on "Molecular Paleontology and Resurrection: Rewinding the Tape of Life" was held on November 8-10, 2010. Organized by scientists from the NAI teams at Georgia Institute of Technology and Montana State University, the workshop drew over 550 registrants from 31 US states and 30 other countries. Twenty-nine talks were presented using 21 different video conferencing rooms, Adobe Connect and phone. The presentations were recorded and are available online.

For more information: [Source: NAI Newsletter]