Astrobiology (general): November 2011

When Dr. Eric Boyd of the NAI's Montana State University Team goes searching for evidence of what extra-terrestrial life might look like, he heads to Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park. On Saturday the 24th of September Dr. Boyd was joined by the Webelos of Packs 524 and 552 of Livingston, Montana, with the goal of finding out what life might look like on another planet.

Dr. Boyd began the expedition by explaining some basic background on what Yellowstone is, how the Yellowstone area was formed, and some basic safety instructions on walking through a geothermal area as well as instructions on using the laser guns and pH strips he had brought for the Webolos. It was time to go 'Alien Hunting'.

The Scouts started their hunt at Echinus Geyser by first testing the temperature of the spring with their lasers. They were surprised to find that the temperature was between 156 and 166 degrees Fahrenheit; everybody agreed that it was way too hot for most life to survive. However the Scouts noted that the deep reds, oranges and faint greens associated with the spring seemed to indicate that life is present. At the outflow of the geyser the Scouts tested a sample of the spring water, sampled by Dr. Boyd, and found that it had a pH of between 3 and 4, a very acidic and extreme environment when compared to the boys drinking water which was pH 7.

The boys took their results to Dr. Boyd, who indicated that they were correct in believing that the spring was acidic, but that we should consider how life is thriving in such high temperature and acid conditions. Then Dr. Boyd shared with the boys why NASA scientists study geysers such at this: the iron-rich habitat at Echinus can be considered to be an Earth analog for what might be present on Mars since it is known that the red planet is rich in iron and has had hot springs in its distant past.
"The Boys learned how to look at a spring and based on visual observations, predict the pH and temperature of the spring as well as how the organisms were making a living. Such imaginative thinking is truly the cornerstone of NASA's astrobiology exploration program - in essence identifying patterns and using this to predict an outcome. Through iteration, such as what the Scouts experienced today in the Norris Geyser Basin, we refine our predictions and culminate in understanding" said Boyd. "The collective ideas that this group of youngsters generated about how life survives in extreme environments and the enthusiasm that the students had for NASA-supported science was impressive. I look forward to seeing how this group of young men progress through their Scout Program and their academic education."

The boys left the park with fond memories of red iron-eating bugs, black caldrons filled with mud, and pools of life that had found a way to survive in extreme environments. "What a wonderful opportunity Yellowstone National Park provides each of us to learn about the natural world that surrounds each and every one of us." said Boyd.

Source: NAI Newsletter

A new study from NASA Astrobiology Program-funded scientists points to a rapid collapse of Earth's species 252 million years ago.

Since the first organisms appeared on Earth approximately 3.8 billion years ago, life on the planet has had some close calls. In the last 500 million years, Earth has undergone five mass extinctions, including the event 66 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. And while most scientists agree that a giant asteroid was responsible for that extinction, there's much less consensus on what caused an even more devastating extinction more than 185 million years earlier.

The end-Permian extinction occurred 252.2 million years ago, decimating 90 percent of marine and terrestrial species, from snails and small crustaceans to early forms of lizards and amphibians. "The Great Dying," as it's now known, was the most severe mass extinction in Earth's history, and is probably the closest life has come to being completely extinguished. Possible causes include immense volcanic eruptions, rapid depletion of oxygen in the oceans, and -- an unlikely option -- an asteroid collision.

While the causes of this global catastrophe are unknown, an MIT-led team of researchers has now established that the end-Permian extinction was extremely rapid, triggering massive die-outs both in the oceans and on land in less than 20,000 years -- the blink of an eye in geologic time. The researchers also found that this time period coincides with a massive buildup of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which likely triggered the simultaneous collapse of species in the oceans and on land.

With further calculations, the group found that the average rate at which carbon dioxide entered the atmosphere during the end-Permian extinction was slightly below today's rate of carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere due to fossil fuel emissions. Over tens of thousands of years, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide during the Permian period likely triggered severe global warming, accelerating species extinctions.

The researchers also discovered evidence of simultaneous and widespread wildfires that may have added to end-Permian global warming, triggering what they deem "catastrophic" soil erosion and making environments extremely arid and inhospitable.

The researchers present their findings this week in Science, and say the new timescale may help scientists home in on the end-Permian extinction's likely causes.

For more information:

Source: NAI Newsletter

The NASA Astrobiology Program is pleased to announce the selection of five new NASA Postdoctoral Fellows:

Paula Welander
Advisor: Roger Summons (MIT)
Investigating the Biological Function of Sterols and Hopanoids in Methylococcus capsulatus

Matthew Herron
Advisor: Frank Rosenzweig (University of Montana)
Theoretical and Experimental Investigations into the Evolution of Complexity

Betul Arslan
Advisor: Eric Gaucher (Georgia Institute of Technology)
The Role of Chance and Necessity in Evolution: An Experimental Model to Discover Life's Solutions

Melissa Rice
Advisor: John Grotzinger (CalTech)
High-Resolution Mineral Stratigraphy of Mars

Arsev Aydinoglu
Co-Advisors: Suzie Allard (University of Tennessee) and Ed Goolish (NAI Central)
The Collaborative Practices of the NASA Astrobiology Institute: The Assessment of an Interdisciplinary Virtual Scientific Organization

More information about the NPP can be found at

Source: NAI Newsletter

Both the Call for Abstracts and Conference Registration will open at the AbSciCon website on Tuesday, November 22nd. Information on student travel grant applications will also be available, as well as updated logistics information.

For more information:

Source: NAI Newsletter

Are You the Next Carl Sagan? Come Find Out at FameLab Astrobiology! Calling all grad students and post docs doing research related to astrobiology.....FameLab Astrobiology is a science communication extravaganza! Via four preliminaries and one final competition--spanning January thru April 2012--early career astrobiologists will compete to convey their own research or related science concepts. Each contestant has the spotlight for only three slides, no charts--just the power of words and anything you can hold in your hands. A panel of experts in both science and science communication will do the judging. One of the four preliminaries will be held 100% online via YouTube!

Beyond the competition, at each preliminary event there will be science communication training and enrichment activities, providing exposure to alternative careers. There will also be a two-day master class for finalists just prior to AbSciCon 2012 in April. Other science communication opportunities will be available, including joining a network of other FameLab participants from around the globe!

Registration and more info can be found at:

Download the poster here.

Please contact Daniella Scalice at the NASA Astrobiology Institute with any questions:

Source: NAI Newsletter

On September 20th, NAI Director Carl Pilcher delivered a colloquium to the NASA Ames community about NAI Founding Director Barry Blumberg. Focusing on his early career, his path to discovering the Hepatitis B virus and developing a vaccine, and ultimately his winning of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Carl discusses how Barry's medical career shaped his perspectives on astrobiology and his actions as NAI Director.

Click here to view the colloquium.

Source: NAI Newsletter