Astrobiology (general): August 2011

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.

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."

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.

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