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Astrobiology (general): December 2010


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]

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."

Arsenic-Based Life Found on Earth

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: http://teachscience.psu.edu

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I4LpmWe1YA4

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]

"Life As We Know It", Redefined

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 MSNBC.com'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."

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: http://astrobiology.nasa.gov/articles/nai-hosts-second-workshop-without-walls [Source: NAI Newsletter]