October 2012

The John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress is accepting applications and nominations for the Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology.

Applications and nominations must be postmarked by Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012. For guidelines and forms, visit .

Established in the fall of 2011, the Blumberg Astrobiology Chair is a distinguished senior position at the Librarys Kluge Center. The incumbent conducts research at the intersection between the science of astrobiology and its humanistic aspects, particularly its societal implications, using the collections and services of the Library. The incumbent is expected to be in residence at the Kluge Center for a period of up to 12 months. The stipend is $13,500 per month. This is an appointment made by the Librarian of Congress on the recommendation of a selection committee, which considers both applications and nominations. For the Librarys original announcement of the chair, see . For the selection announcement of the first chair, see

The incumbent is also expected to give at least one public presentation in the Washington, D.C. area and to organize workshops, symposia, small conferences or other activities that engage the broader academic community and the public.

For the past four years, early career scientists have organized a Research Focus Group (RFG), preceding the Astrobiology Graduate Student conference (AbGradCon) in which participants are grouped into interdisciplinary groups to develop original research projects, draft a written proposal, peer-review the proposals of other groups and then vote on the best proposals.

For 2012 the RFG was held at USC's Wrigley Institute on Catalina Island, CA in late August. The group selected the following proposals:

1st choice: Characterization of Residual Biosignatures in Arctic Glacial Environments: A Remote Sensing Study for Biosignature Detection on Mars and Icy Worlds
Group 8: Julia DeMarines, Ian Foster, Chester Harman, Shana Kendall, Afshin Khan

2nd choice: The Autocatalytic Generation of Amino Acid Homochirality under Planetary Atmospheres
Group 3: Michael Chaffin, Amanda Evans, Rebecca McCauley, Marika Tarasashvili

3rd choice: Microbial and geochemical characterization of soils interfacing with physicochemical extremes from the hyper-arid core of the Atacama Desert - a potential key to understanding the evolution and functionality of life in a Mars-analog environment
Group 7: Anthony Friedline, Graham Lau, Shannon Soucy, Madhan Tirumalai

Congratulations to the winning proposal teams!!

The NASA Exoplanet Science Institute announces the 2013 Sagan Postdoctoral Fellowship Program and solicits applications for fellowships to begin in the fall of 2013. The application deadline is Thursday, November 1, 2012.

The Sagan Fellowships will support outstanding recent postdoctoral scientists to conduct independent research that is broadly related to the science goals of the NASA Exoplanet Exploration program. The primary goal of missions within this program is to discover and characterize planetary systems and Earth-like planets around nearby stars. Sagan Fellowships are joined by two other NASA astrophysics theme-based fellowship programs: the Einstein Fellowship Program which supports the Physics of the Cosmos research, and the Hubble Fellowship Program which supports Cosmic Origins research.

For more information visit:

The Gerald A. Soffen Memorial Fund is pleased to announce the last 2012 Travel Grant application opportunity for undergraduate and graduate students pursuing studies in fields of space science and engineering.

The Travel Grants, in the amount of $500, enable student recipients to attend professional meetings to present their research. The Fall 2012 Travel Grant application deadline is October 15, 2012. Jerry Soffen, a biologist by training, led a distinguished career in NASA, including serving as the Project Scientist for Viking and as an architect for the NASA Astrobiology Institute. The Travel Grant continues Jerry's dedication to educating and involving future generations in space science and engineering pursuits. The electronic application materials and instructions are located on the Soffen Fund website:

Questions regarding the application or application process may be sent to:

This 5 week course beginning January 28th, 2013 at the University of Edinburgh will explore what we know about life's ability to live in extreme environments on the Earth. We will look at some of the missions to search for life in our own Solar System and on planets orbiting distant stars. We will discuss some of the extreme environments on the Earth that help us understand the limits of life and how life has adapted to cope with extremes. We will explore the possibility of intelligent alien life and some of the implications of its detection. The course will provide a foundation in astrobiology and introduce students to concepts in a diversity of scientific fields.

Visit: for all the course information.

Please join the NAI in welcoming five new research teams into the Institute--the University of Washington; Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and the University of Southern California.

"The intellectual scope of astrobiology is breathtaking, from understanding how our planet went from lifeless to living, to understanding how life has adapted to Earth's harshest environments, to exploring other worlds with the most advanced technologies to search for signs of life," said Carl Pilcher, Director of the NAI. "The new teams cover that breadth of astrobiology, and by coming together in the NAI, they will make the connections between disciplines and organizations that stimulate fundamental scientific advances."

"How would we know if an extrasolar planet were able to support life or had life on it already?" asks the University of Washington's Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL) team, led by Victoria Meadows. Using interdisciplinary computational models, VPL examines life's observable impact on a planetary environment, considering a variety of metabolisms, planetary compositions, and host stars. The result of this team effort will be a library of astronomical biosignatures against which spectral and photometric data returned by missions such as JWST can be cross-referenced to check for signs of life.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology team led by Roger Summons asks, "If we cannot detect complex life on Earth when it first arose, how can we hope to detect life on other planets?" This team examines the history of complex life by studying Earth's rock record, particularly fossil, isotopic, and molecular evidence. Its focus is taphonomy--the combination of processes and conditions that preserve biological signatures. The team uses the insights it develops to guide how and where to look for evidence for life elsewhere, particularly at Gale Crater on Mars, site of the Curiosity Rover Mission.

The team at the University of Wisconsin, led by Clark Johnson, seeks to enhance our overall capability to identify and interpret specific biosignatures and the ancient environments in which they formed. Focusing in particular on how interaction of life's biomolecules with rock substrates can affect the detection of those signatures, the team will develop new instrumentation for the identification of biomolecules, and integrate techniques such as genomics and organic and isotope geochemistry. They will also approach the characterization of life's past environments by mineral proxy, studying ancient clays, iron-silica oxides, and carbonates to infer paleoenvironmental conditions and biological processes.

The University of Illinois team, led by Nigel Goldenfeld, builds upon the research of Carl Woese, a team member who revolutionized our understanding of the diversity of life on Earth through his pioneering studies of ribosomal DNA. The team will probe beyond the last universal common ancestor at the root of the tree of life, delving into that early space where it is thought life was dominated by collective phenomena. The team seeks to identify general principles underlying the emergence and subsequent evolution of living matter, a field called "Universal Biology." Using field and laboratory investigations into collective community dynamics as well as theoretical and computational studies of co-evolution in both natural and digital life systems, the team will inform our view of how life emerged, both here and elsewhere in the Universe.

The University of Southern California team led by Jan Amend is focused on the intraterrestrials, a vast community of micro-organisms that make up Earth's subsurface biosphere. They ask, "How do we search for microbes in the subsurface?" They answer, "By drilling, of course!" Their investigations begin with drilling operations in unique and distinct geological environments, and continue with the deployment of new in situ instruments for biomass detection directly into the boreholes. The team will then utilize novel techniques to culture the notoriously unculturable intraterrestrials and study the energy flow in these communities.

These five new teams join ten continuing teams led by the University of Hawaii, Arizona State University, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Pennsylvania State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology and teams at NASA Ames Research Center and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, as well as two teams at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

'Arsenic-life' bacterium prefers phosphorous after all, Nature

"Tawfik says that he was shocked by how good the proteins were at discriminating between the essential phosphate and the deadly arsenate. This does not mean that arsenate does not get into the bacteria, he points out. "It just shows that this bacterium has evolved to extract phosphate under almost all circumstances." The exceedingly high preference for phosphorous found in the key proteins in that species represent "just the last nail in the coffin" of the hypothesis that GFAJ-1 uses arsenic in its DNA, says Tawfik."

The molecular basis of phosphate discrimination in arsenate-rich environments, Nature

NASA's Big Arsenic-Based Life Claim Was Wrong, earlier post