Origin & Evolution of Life: January 2008

Dear Colleague, The National Science Foundation's Assembling the Tree of Life (AToL) solicitation has recently been renewed and updated (see the program solicitation, NSF 08-515; As in the past, the AToL competition will support creative and innovative research to resolve evolutionary relationships for large groups of organisms. The program also supports research on theory and methods and tool development for these large scale phylogenetic investigations. With this letter we wish to draw your attention to several new and/or enhanced areas of interest. Proposals in the following areas are especially encouraged:

Astrobiology December 2007, 7(6): 819-823

A key challenge in Astrobiology is to comprehend life and its interaction with the environment at a level sufficiently fundamental to embrace the alternative biochemistries that may be encountered in a search for life elsewhere (Baross et al., 2007).

Astrobiology December 2007, 7(6): 1023-1032

The shallow habitable region of cratonal crust deforms with a strain rate on the order of 1019 s1. This is rapid enough that small seismic events are expected on one-kilometer spatial scales and one-million-year timescales. Rock faulting has the potential to release batches of biological substrate, such as dissolved H2, permitting transient blooms.

Astrobiology December 2007, 7(6): 1006-1022

Europa is a prime target for astrobiology. The presence of a global subsurface liquid water ocean and a composition likely to contain a suite of biogenic elements make it a compelling world in the search for a second origin of life. Critical to these factors, however, may be the availability of energy for biological processes on Europa.

Astrobiology December 2007, 7(6): 987-1005

We examine means for driving hydrothermal activity in extraterrestrial oceans on planets and satellites of less than one Earth mass, with implications for sustaining a low level of biological activity over geological timescales. Assuming ocean planets have olivine-dominated lithospheres, a model for cooling-induced thermal cracking shows how variation in planet size and internal thermal energy may drive variation in the dominant type of hydrothermal system--for example, high or low temperature system or chemically driven system.

Astrobiology December 2007, 7(6): 873-890

Formate, a simple organic acid known to support chemotrophic hyperthermophiles, is found in hot springs of varying temperature and pH. However, it is not yet known how metabolic strategies that use formate could contribute to primary productivity in hydrothermal ecosystems. In an effort to provide a quantitative framework for assessing the role of formate metabolism, concentration data for dissolved formate and many other solutes in samples from Yellowstone hot springs were used, together with data for coexisting gas compositions, to evaluate the overall Gibbs energy for many reactions involving formate oxidation or reduction.

Actinides and Life's Origins

Astrobiology December 2007, 7(6): 852-872

There are growing indications that life began in a radioactive beach environment. A geologic framework for the origin or support of life in a Hadean heavy mineral placer beach has been developed, based on the unique chemical properties of the lower-electronic actinides, which act as nuclear fissile and fertile fuels, radiolytic energy sources, oligomer catalysts, and coordinating ions (along with mineralogically associated lanthanides) for prototypical prebiotic homonuclear and dinuclear metalloenzymes.