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August 2011


The Department of Geology at Kansas State University invites applications for a full-time tenure-track position in Environmental Geobiology, at the rank of Assistant Professor. Compensation is based on the nine-month academic year, although two months summer salary may be negotiated for up to two years. A competitive startup package is available. The position will start no later than August 2012 and may begin earlier if mutually agreeable.

Review of applications will begin on September 15, 2011 and continue until the position is filled.

For more informaiton: http://www.k-state.edu/geology/department/geobioposition.html

The Extreme Chemistry group (X-chem) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has an immediate opening for a Postdoctoral Research Staff Member in the area of first-principles computational modeling of astrobiological phenomena for a project recently funded by the NASA Astrobiology: Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology program. The primary research thrust of this position involves molecular dynamics (MD) modeling designed to identify and understand chemical reactions and mechanisms of prebiotic materials in condensed phases under shock compression. The successful candidate will help elucidate the necessary thermodynamic and chemical conditions for the formation of species such as amino acids and lipids during impact events from comets and asteroids on early Earth. The technical goals of this work are to create computational models that will allow for the study of long time-scale reaction dynamics of astrobiological materials under high pressures and temperatures.

Please see https://careers.llnl.gov/ (posting #009956) for more information and to apply.

Origin of Life Research Award

An award of $50,000 is being offered for the best original proposal pertaining to the study of the origin of life on Earth. Multiple awards may be made. "Life" is defined as a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution. The proposal should take into account the conditions, materials, and energy sources believed to have existed on the prebiotic Earth. Submissions should provide a cogent hypothesis for how life first arose, including its plausible chemistry, and for how primitive life could have evolved to modern biological cells, including the present genetic material and metabolism. Submitters are encouraged to offer unconventional hypotheses that nonetheless can be subject to experimental validation. Submissions will be accepted through December 31, 2011.

For further information and instructions on how to submit a proposal see http://www.originlife.org/ .

A new Astrobiology Centre will be started at Stockholm University this autumn. It will be a virtual Centre (with no separate administration) and comprise scientists engaged in physics, astronomy, geology, geochemistry and molecular biology. The centre will be carrying on the activities of the Astrobiology Graduate School at Stockholm Graduate School on a broader and larger scale. Although the training activities will continue, the scope of the Stockholm University Astrobiology Centre will encompass multidisciplinary science projects, outreach activities and co-operation with other astrobiology institutions. Four post-docs and 5 graduate students will be employed by the centre through funding from the Stockholm University Faculty of Sciences. Common interdisciplinary scientific projects of SU-ABC include:

* Siderophores as tool for dissolving, transport and reduction of crystalline material and properties of the organisms that produce them
* Serpentinisation on Earth and other objects in the solar system as a source for molecular hydrogen
* To find life at large distances - biomarkers
* Polyaromatic hydrocarbons in space
* Negative ions in the Universe
* Formation of complex molecules in the interstellar medium

The Stockholm University Astrobiology Centre will be officially launched on 2 September 2011. A programme of the opening day can be found here.

The 8th annual Astrobiology Graduate Conference (AbGradCon) was held at Montana State University (MSU) in Bozeman, MT from June 5-8, 2011. AbGradCon is unique in that it is organized by and targeted toward graduate students and postdocs, no more than three years from receiving their PhD, from across the sub-disciplines of astrobiology. This year's conference organization required two years of collaboration between students in Colorado and Montana, with great results.

In total there were 72 attendees at AbGradCon, including 8 international attendees from 7 different countries (Australia, Canada, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, and Scotland). The disciplines of the attendees were well distributed across astrobiology, with representation from the geological sciences (20 attendees), biological sciences (19), chemistry (15), astronomy and physics (12), and engineering/other (6). All attendees presented their work either with a 12-minute talk or a two-minute lightening talk and a poster.

The scientific program for AbGradCon 2011 consisted of two full days of talks, broken into eight different sessions on fairly broad topics, followed by afternoon poster sessions. All of the talks were broadcast live online in an Adobe Connect Meeting Room and recorded, and are now available on the conference website. The conference program also included three different career development activities. The first was "NASA Night", an informal and very popular presentation and discussion by Dr. Shawn Domagal-Goldman (NASA HQ) about opportunities for graduate and postdoctoral fellowships, research grants and programs, missions, and other opportunities with NASA. Second, the invited speaker for the conference banquet, Dr. Kevin Hand (JPL), gave an inspirational talk about his career path titled "Adventures in Astrobiology: A Random Walk to a Known Goal." The third career development opportunity was the "Europa Collaborative Session." This was an informal presentation by Dr. James Kinsey (WHOI) titled "Analogues for Astrobiological Exploration in the Earth's Deep Oceans with the National Deep Submergence Facility Vehicles: Current ASTEP Programs and Future Opportunities". The feedback from conference participants was that these events were very useful for learning about opportunities, as well as for starting conversations with each other about future research and outreach projects.

Mars on Earth in Sydney

A little bit of Mars - a 140 square metre Marsyard - has been recreated in the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, complete with two rovers and a working laboratory for space robotics and astrobiology researchers. The public exhibition is part of the Pathways to Space project led by Dr. Carol Oliver at the Australian Centre for Astrobiology at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. There are three other consortium members - the Australian Centre for Field Robotics at the University of Sydney (which designed and built the rovers), the Powerhouse Museum, which is Australia's largest science museum, and industry partner Cisco.

Pathways to Space has been funded with a million dollar grant from the Australian Federal Government's Australian Space Science Research Program, matched by a total of $1.5M in kind from the project partners. A high school student-focused education program is at the heart of the project. The key objective - to be tested by longitudinal research - is to encourage 50 to 100 students from more than 2000 participants to go onto space-related university courses and, eventually, space-related careers.

The project also has the facility to allow schools across Australia - and potentially overseas - to participate using its TelePresence system and unique rover driving and exploration software to draw in any school with a standard video system. A monthly forum is planned for students with guests from around the world sharing their Visions of Mars and answering student questions via TelePresence.

For more information: http://www.pathwaystospace.org

The deadline for abstract submittal for the ASGSB November 2011 meeting has been extended to Friday, September 2, 2011. To submit and abstract, please go to the following link: http://www.asgsb2011.org/index.php/call-for-abstracts.html.

Fossils are essential to our understanding of the history and origins of complex life. New work from NAI's MIT and Penn State teams describes exquisitely preserved microfossils from mid-Neoproterozoic (811-717 million years old) rocks of the Fifteenmile Group, Yukon. These fossils are interpreted as biomineralized plates that covered the surface of a single-celled alga.

Their findings suggest that the minerals used by the ancient marine organisms have changed through time, perhaps linked to changing ocean chemistry. While the relationship of these fossils to modern organisms is difficult to determine, the researchers argue that it's likely that these unique fossils are the plates of an organism most closely related to green algae. Their paper appears online in Geology.

Ancient rocks are shedding new light on the timeline for life's emergence on Earth. The rocks from the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt in Quebec, Canada, are believed to be some of the oldest on Earth. They contain carbon-based minerals that had been interpreted as evidence of the Earth's early biosphere, however, new research tells a different story. By applying cutting-edge technology to the rock samples, a team of scientists have revealed that the carbon minerals found in the rocks may be much younger than the rocks themselves.

"The characteristics of the poorly crystalline graphite within the samples are not consistent with the metamorphic history of the rock," said co-author Dominic Papineau in a news release from Boston College. "The carbon in the graphite is not as old as the rock. That can only ring a bell and require us to ask if we need to reconsider earlier studies."

The results were reported in the May 15, 2011 edition of the journal Nature Geoscience. Funding organizations for this work included the NASA Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology Program (Exo/Evo), the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), the W.M. Keck Foundation, the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Carnegie of Canada, the Naval Research Laboratory, the NRC Research Associateship Program, Boston College, and the Fond Quebecois pour la recherche sur la nature et les technologies (FQRNT).

Some asteroids may have been like "molecular factories" cranking out life's ingredients and shipping them to Earth via meteorite impacts. Now it appears that at least one asteroid may have been less like a rigid assembly line and more like a flexible diner that doesn't mind making changes to the menu.

Astrobiologists at NAI's Goddard Space Flight Center and Carnegie Institution of Washington teams studying the carbon-rich Tagish Lake meteorite have discovered that different pieces of it have greatly differing amounts of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins and essential ingredients to life as we know it.

In January, 2000, a large meteoroid exploded in the atmosphere over northern British Columbia, Canada, and rained fragments across the frozen surface of Tagish Lake. Because many people witnessed the fireball, pieces were collected within days and kept preserved in their frozen state. This ensured that there was very little contamination from terrestrial life.

Astrobiology Science News 17 August 2011

The Hunt for Other Earths Begins at Home

Planet Earth is the only example we have of what a habitable planet 'looks' like. Using observations from NASA's Terra, QuikSCAT, and Aura missions, researchers have now developed a 3-D Spectral Earth Model that simulates the appearance of the Earth under a variety of conditions. Researchers with the NASA Astrobiology Institute's Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) and NASA's EPOXI mission team have shown that the model's predictions are a near-perfect match to actual EPOXI and Aqua observations. It can also accurately simulate the whole-disk image of Earth at different wavelengths. The data was published in the July issue of the journal Astrobiology, and it will help astrobiologists test methods for characterizing Earth-sized planets around distant stars. Ultimately, accurate simulations of the Earth could help scientists identify habitable, extrasolar worlds.

Cycling Nitrogen in Ancient Oceans

In recent years, scientists have found evidence that a 'near complete' biological nitrogen cycle existed in the oceans during the late Archean to early Proterozoic (from 2.5 to 2 billion years ago). Modern bacteria use an enzyme called nitrogenase to cycle nitrogen from one form to another. This enzyme is dependent on the presence of metallic elements like iron (Fe), vanadium (V) and, most often, molybdenum (Mo). However, ancient oceans didn't contain much molybdenum. Could Fe-nitrogenase or V-nitrogenase have played a larger role in the archaean oceans than they do today? To answer this question, a team of researchers at NAI's Montana State University and Arizona State University teams studied the phylogenetic relationships between the proteins that allow nitrogenase to interact with each of the three elements. Their results suggest that the protein (known as Nif protein) actually developed in methanogenic microorganisms, and was then incorporated into bacteria by lateral gene transfer around 1.5-2.2 billion years ago. Ultimately, if Mo-nitrogenase originated under anoxic conditions in the Archaean, it would have likely happened in an environment where both methanogens and bacteria coexisted, and where molybdenum was present for at least part of the time.

The emergence of enzymes like Mo-nitrogenase was a significant step in the evolution of life, and had powerful repercussions for planet Earth and its biosphere as a whole. This research can help answer important questions about the environmental conditions that were present on the early Earth, and the interactions that occurred between life and the ancient planet.

The results were published in the May edition of the journal Geobiology

Searching for Extrasolar Biosignatures

Researchers supported in part by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and the NASA Exobiology & Evolutionary Biology program have used computer models to study the potential of organic sulfur compounds to be biosignatures in exoplanetary atmospheres. The results indicate that the most detectable feature involves levels of ethane that are higher than expected based on a target planet's methane concentration. These detection techniques will be particularly useful for finding life on planets similar to the early Earth, that do have life but do not have atmospheric oxygen or ozone, two major biosignature gases. The team suggests that a mission that can detect the ethane and methane in exoplanet atmospheres could find life on such planets, thereby increasing our chances of finding a habitable world outside our solar system.

The study was recently published in the journal Astrobiology and is now available online.

Astrobiology Science News 15 August 2011

A New Look at the Sulfur Cycle

The record of Earth's sulfur cycle preserved in sedimentary rocks is commonly used to track the evolution of microbial sulfur metabolisms and levels of atmospheric oxygen throughout geologic history. Sulfur isotope evidence suggests the Earth's atmospheric oxygen appeared about 2.4 billion years ago, but its level remained rather low until about 650 million years ago.

New studies by NASA Astrobiology Institute scientists have questioned the extent to which the record of the sulfur cycle reflects the oxygenation. The team has demonstrated that a laboratory culture of a marine sulfate-reducing bacterium can produce sulfur isotope signatures beyond the threshold previously used to define the boundaries for different sulfur metabolisms. This finding suggests that oxygenation is not the only mechanism that can explain similar signatures in modern and ancient sediments. The team's paper was published in the July 1 issue of Science.

Astrobiologist Wins Darwin-Wallace Medal

This year's recipient of the prestigious Darwin-Wallace Medal is James A. Lake, professor of molecular, cell, and developmental biology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and a researcher with NASA's Astrobiology Program. The Linnean Society of London awards this medal for major advances in evolutionary biology. Lake received the medal in London on May 25, 2011.

Lake is a collaborator with the NASA Astrobiology Institute's (NAI) NASA Ames Research Center team, which is studying early habitable environments and the evolution of complexity in planetary environments and life. Lake's NAI research focuses on the origins of functional proteins and the early evolution of metabolism.

A member of UCLA's Molecular Biology Institute, Lake is known for his expertise in genomics and bioinformatics, including the origin and evolution of genomes. Among his more recent accomplishments is his discovery of the first exclusively prokaryotic endosymbiosis--the merger of two prokaryotes to form a new, eukaryotic life form. Prokaryotes are single-celled life forms without membrane-bound nuclei, whereas eukaryotic cells contain membrane-bound nuclei.

"Dr. Lake's contributions to astrobiology are critical," said Mary A. Voytek, Senior Scientist for Astrobiology at NASA Headquarters. "He and his collaborators are helping us to accomplish key goals in our Astrobiology Roadmap: understanding the general physical and chemical principles underlying the origins of life, how life and the environment on Earth have co-evolved through geological time, and the evolutionary mechanisms and environmental limits of life."

Lake Co-chairs the NAI's Focus Group on evogenomics. He previously served on two NAI teams, headed by UCLA and the Marine Biological Laboratory.

"Dr. Lake has contributed to astrobiology not only through his research, but by helping bring together the astrobiology community," said Carl Pilcher, Director of the NAI. Through workshops and meetings, he catalyzed work by geologists and biologists to advance our understanding of how Earth and life have evolved together."

Astrobiologist Wins Murchison Medal

The Geological Society of London, the recognised UK professional body for geoscientists, awards several medals each year to honor significant contributions to the geological sciences. Please join us in congratulating Bruce Watson of NAI's RPI team who is the 2011 recipient of the Society's Murchison Medal. The Society's Awards for 2011 were presented on 8 June 2011.

The Murchison Medal is given to an individual each year who has made a significant contribution to the science by means of a substantial body of research. The Society regards this medal very highly and it is not normally awarded on the basis of a few good papers. Workers in both 'pure' and 'applied' aspects of the geological sciences are eligible. The Murchison Medal is normally given for contributions to 'hard' rock studies.

For more information: http://www.geolsoc.org.uk/webdav/site/GSL/shared/pdfs/events/abstracts/Senior%20medallist%20talks.pdf

A case study of last year's Workshop without Walls on "Molecular Paleontology and Resurrection: Rewinding the Tape of Life." appears in the July 2011 issue of PLoS Biology. Authors include Betuel Arslan of the Georgia Tech team, Eric Boyd of the Montana State University team, and members of NAI Central.

Abstract:

The NASA Astrobiology Institute conducted two "Workshops Without Walls" during 2010 that enabled global scientific exchange--with no travel required. The second of these was on the topic "Molecular Paleontology and Resurrection: Rewinding the Tape of Life." Scientists from diverse disciplines and locations around the world were joined through an integrated suite of collaborative technologies to exchange information on the latest developments in this area of origin of life research. Through social media outlets and popular science blogs, participation in the workshop was broadened to include educators, science writers, and members of the general public. In total, over 560 people from 31 US states and 30 other nations were registered. Among the scientific disciplines represented were geochemistry, biochemistry, molecular biology and evolution, and microbial ecology. We present this workshop as a case study in how interdisciplinary collaborative research may be fostered, with substantial public engagement, without sustaining the deleterious environmental and economic impacts of travel.

For more information: http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1001118

The pool of candidates for the NAI/APS 2011 competition was the largest we have ever experienced. Typically six to seven selections are made annually, however for 2011 twelve young investigators were selected for the Lewis and Clark Fund for Exploration and Field Research in Astrobiology.

Congratulations go to:

Save the Date: AbSciCon 2012

The next Astrobiology Science Conference will be held in Atlanta, GA from April 16--20, 2012. Sign up to receive conference updates at: http://abscicon2012.arc.nasa.gov/. AbSciCon 2012 "Exploring Life: Past and Present, Near and Far" will address our current understanding of life, from processes at the molecular level to those that operate at planetary scales. Studying these aspects of life on Earth provides an essential platform to examine the potential for life within our solar system and beyond.

Please join us as this year's students present the results of their summer's research.

The 2011 Summer Undergraduate Internship in Astrobiology is a ten-week internship in astrobiology held each year at Goddard Space Flight Center.

Date/Time: Thursday, August 11, 2010 11:00 AM Pacific

Presenters:

Wade Dauberman - Water on Mars: Measurements of H2O, HDO, and D/H using CRIRES at VLT
Natasha Batalha - Analyzing Spectra of a Transiting Exoplanet
Laura Beckerman - Analysis of Carbon Isotopes of Mars Analog Materials

For more information and participation instructions: http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/nai/seminars/detail/193