Category: The Search for Life Beyond Earth (page 1 of 5)

On the Ground in Greenland, at the Disputed Ancient Stromatolite Site

Enlarge to full screen on lower right. A pioneering three-dimensional, virtual reality look at a Greenland outcrop earlier described as containing 3.7-billion- year-old stromatolite fossils, which would be the oldest remnant of life on Earth. The video capture, including the drone-assisted overview of the site, is part of a much larger virtual reality effort to document the setting undertaken late in August. As the video focuses in on the scientifically controversial outcrop, cuts are visible in the smooth surfaces that were made by two teams studying the rocks in great detail to determine whether the reported stromatolite fossils are actually present. (Parker Abercrombie, NASA/JPL and Ian Burch, Queensland University of Technology.)

 

Seldom does one rock outcrop get so many visitors in a day, especially when that outcrop is located in rugged, frigid terrain abutting the Greenland Ice Sheet and can be reached only by helicopter.

But this has been a specimen of great importance and notoriety since it appeared from beneath the snow pack some eight years ago. That’s when it was first identified by two startled geologists as something very different from what they had seen in four decades of scouring the geologically revelatory region – the gnarled Isua supercrustal belt – for fossil signs of very early life.

Since that discovery the rock outcrop has been featured in a top journal and later throughout the world as potentially containing the earliest signature of life on Earth – the outlines of half inch to almost two inch-high stromatolite structures between 3.7 and 3.8 billion years old.

The Isua greenstone, or supracrustal belt, which contains some of the oldest known rocks and outcrops in the world, is about 100 miles northeast of the capital, Nuuk.

If Earth could support the life needed to form primitive but hardly uncomplicated stromatolites that close to the initial cooling of the planet, then the emergence of life might not be so excruciatingly complex after all. Maybe if the conditions are at all conducive for life on a planet (early Mars comes quickly to mind) then life will probably appear.

Extraordinary claims in science, however, require extraordinary proof, and inevitably other scientists will want to test the claims.

Within two years of that initial ancient stromatolite splash in a Nature paper (led by veteran geologist Allen Nutman of the University of Wollongong in Australia), the same journal published a study that disputed many of the key observations and conclusions of the once-hailed ancient stromatolite discovery. … Read more

Exploring Early Earth by Using DNA As A Fossil

Betül Kaçar is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, and a pioneer in the field of paleogenomics — using genetic material to dive back deep into the ancestry of important compounds. (University of Arizona)

Paleontology has for centuries worked to understand the distant past by digging up fossilized remains and analyzing how and why they fit into the evolutionary picture.  The results have been impressive.

But they have been limited.  The evolutionary picture painted relies largely on the discovery of once hard-bodied organisms, with a smattering of iconic finds of soft-bodied creatures.

In recent years, however, a new approach to understanding the biological evolution of life has evolved under the umbrella discipline of paleogenomics.  The emerging field explores ancient life and ancient Earth by focusing on genetic material from ancient organisms preserved in today’s organisms.

These genes can be studied on their own or can be synthetically placed into today’s living organisms to see if, and how, they change behavior.

The goals are ambitious:  To help understand both the early evolution and even the origins of life, as well as to provide a base of knowledge about likely characteristics of potential life on other planets or moons.

“What we do is treat DNA as a fossil, a vehicle to travel back in time,” said Betül Kaçar, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona with more than a decade of experience in the field, often sponsored by the NASA Astrobiology Program and the John Templeton Foundation.  “We build on modern biology, the existing genes, and use what we know from them to construct a molecular tree of life and come up with the ancestral genes of currently existing proteins.”

And then they ask the question of whether and how the expression of those genes — all important biomolecules generally involved in allowing a cell to operate smoothly — has changed over the eons.  It’s a variation on one the basic questions of evolution:  If the film of life were replayed from very early days, would it come out the same?

Cyanobacteria, which was responsible for the build-up of oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere and the subsequent Great Oxidation Event about 2.5 billion years ago.  Kaçar studies and replaces key enzymes in the cyanobacteria in her effort to learn how those ancestral proteins may have behaved when compared to the same molecules today.

The possibility of such research — of taking what is existing today and reconstructing ancient sequences from it — was first proposed by Emile Zuckerkandl, a biologist known for his work in the 1960s with Linus Pauling on the hypothesis of the “molecular clock.” The molecular clock is figurative term for a technique that uses the mutation rate of biomolecules to deduce the time in prehistory when two or more life forms diverged.… Read more

Searching for the Edge of Habitability

Topographical map of Venus by NASA’s Magellan spacecraft (1990 – 1994). Color indicates height. (NASA/JPL/USGS)

How many habitable worlds like our own could exist around other stars? Since the discovery of the first exoplanets, the answer to this question has seemed tantalizingly close. But to estimate the number of Earths, we first need to understand how our planet could have gone catastrophically awry.

In other words, we need to return to Venus.

We have now discovered over 4000 planets beyond our solar system. Approximately one-third of these worlds are Earth-sized and likely to have rocky surfaces not crushed under deep atmospheres. The next step is to discover how many of these support temperate landscapes versus ones unsuitable for life.

The Earth’s habitability is often ascribed to the level of sunlight we receive. We orbit in the so-called ‘habitable zone’ where our planet’s geological cycle can adjust the level of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere to keep our seas liquid. In a closer orbit to the sun, this cycle could not operate fast enough to keep the Earth cool. Our seas would evaporate and our atmosphere fill with carbon dioxide, sending the planet temperature into an upwards spiral known as a runaway greenhouse.

If our solar system had just one Earth-sized planet, this would suggest we could simply count-up similar sized planets in the habitable zones around other stars. This would then be our set of the most likely habitable worlds.

However, this idea is shredded in a new paper posted this month to be published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. Led by Stephen Kane from the University of California, Riverside, the paper is authored by many of the top planetary scientists we have met before in this column.

Their message is simple: our sun is orbited by two Earth-sized planets but only one is habitable. To identify habitable planets around other stars, we need to explain why the Earth and Venus evolved so differently. And the data suggests this is not just a climate catastrophe.

Orbiting beyond the inner edge of the habitable zone, Venus does appear at first to be a runaway Earth. The planet’s atmosphere is 96.5% carbon dioxide, smothering the surface to escalate temperatures to a staggering 863°F (462°C). Images from NASA’s Pioneer Venus mission in the late 1970s revealed a surface of highlands and lowlands that resembled the continents of Earth. This is all consistent with a picture of an Earth-like planet with a runaway greenhouse atmosphere.… Read more

“Agnostic Biosignatures,” And the Path to Life as We Don’t Know It

Most research into signs of life in our solar system or on distant planets uses life on Earth as a starting point. But now NASA has begun a major project to explore the potential signs of life very different from what we have on Earth.  For example, groups of molecules, like those above, can be analyzed for complexity, regardless of their specific chemical constituents.  ( Brittany Klein/Goddard Space Flight Center)

Biosignatures – evidence that says or suggests that life has been present – are often very hard to find and interpret.

Scientists examining fossilized life on Earth can generally reach some sort of agreement about what is before them, but what about the soft-bodied or even single-celled organisms that were the sum total of life on Earth for much of the planet’s history as a living domain? Scientific disagreements are common.

Now think of trying to determine whether a particular outline on an ancient Martian rock, or a geochemical or surface anomaly on that rock, is a sign of life. Or perhaps an unexpected abundance of a particular compound in one of the water vapor plumes coming out of the moons Europa or Enceladus. Or a peculiar chemical imbalance in the atmosphere of a distant exoplanet as measured in the spectral signature collected via telescope.

These are long-standing issues and challenges, but they have taken on a greater urgency of late as NASA missions  (and those of other space agencies around the world) are being designed to actively look for signs of extraterrestrial life – most likely very simple life – past or present.

And that combination of increased urgency and great difficulty has given rise to at least one new way of thinking about those potential signs of life. Scientists call them “agnostic biosignatures” and they do not presuppose any particular biochemistry.

“The more we explore the solar system and distant exoplanets, the more we find worlds that are really foreign,”  said Sarah Stewart Johnson, at an assistant professor at Georgetown University and principal investigator of the newly-formed Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures (LAB).  The LAB team won a five-year, $7 million grant last year from NASA’s Astrobiology Program.

“So our goal is to go beyond our current understandings and find ways to explore the world of life as we don’t know it,” she told me.  “That might mean thinking about a spectrum of how ‘alive’ something might be… And we’re embracing uncertainty, looking as much for biohints as biosignatures.”

Johnson first visited the acid salt lakes of the Yilgarn Craton of Western Australia as a graduate student at MIT, and has returned multiple with colleagues to understand mineral biosignatures as well as biomarker preservation in this analog environment for early Mars.

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If Bacteria Could Talk

 

Hawaiian lava cave microbial mats appear to have the highest levels and diversity of genes related to quorum sensing so far.  (Stuart Donachie, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa)

Did you know that many bacteria — some of the oldest lifeforms on Earth — can talk?  Really.

And not only between the same kind of single-cell bacteria, but  back and forth with members of other species, too.

Okay, they don’t talk in words or with sounds at all.  But they definitely communicate in a meaningful and essential way, especially in the microbial mats and biofilms (microbes attached to surfaces surrounded by mucus) that constitute their microbial “cities.”

Their “words” are conveyed via chemical signaling molecules — a chemical language — going from one organism to another,  and are a means to control when genes in the bacterial DNA are turned “on” or “off.”  The messages can then be translated into behaviors to protect or enhance the larger (as in often much, much larger) group.

Called “quorum sensing,” this microbial communication was first identified several decades ago.  While the field remains more characterized by questions than definitive answers, is it clearly growing and has attracted attention in medicine, in microbiology and in more abstract computational and robotics work.

Most recently,  it has been put forward as chemically-induced behavior that can help scientists understand how bacteria living in extreme environments on Earth — and potential on Mars —  survive and even prosper.  And the key finding is that bacteria are most successful when they form communities of microbial mats and biofilms, often with different species of bacteria specializing in particular survival capabilities.

Speaking at the recent Astrobiology Science Conference in Seattle,  Rebecca Prescott, a National Science Foundation  Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Biology said this community activity may make populations of bacteria much more hardy than otherwise might be predicted.

 

Quorum sensing requires a community. Isolated Bacteria (and Archaea) have nobody to communicate with and so genes that are activated by quorum sensing are not turned “on.”

“To help us understand where microbial life may occur on Mars or other planets, past or present, we must understand how microbial communities evolve and function in extreme environments as a group, rather than single species,” said Prescott,

“Quorum sensing gives us a peek into the interactive world of bacteria and how cooperation may be key to survival in harsh environments,” she said.

Rebecca Prescott  is a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Biology (1711856) and is working with principal investigator Alan Decho of the University of South Carolina on a NASA Exobiology Program grant.

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Exoplanets With Complex Life May Be Very Rare, Even in Their “Habitable Zones”

The term “habitable zone” can be a misleading one, since it describes a limited number of conditions on a planet to make it hospitable to life. (NASA)

 

For years now, finding planets in the habitable zones of their host stars has been a global astrophysical quest and something of a holy grail.  That distance from a star where temperatures could allow H20 to remain liquid some of the time has been deemed the “Goldilocks” zone where life could potentially emerge and survive.

The term is valuable for sure, but many in the field worry that it can be as misleading or confusing as it is helpful.

Because while the habitable zone is a function of the physics and architecture of a solar system, so much more is needed to make a planet actually potentially habitable.  Does it have an atmosphere?  Does it have a magnetic field. Does it orbit on an elliptical path that takes it too far (and too close) to the sun?  Was it sterilized during the birth of the host star and orbiting planets?  What kind of star does it orbit, and how old and luminous is that star?

And then there’s the sometimes confused understanding that many habitable zones may well support complex, even technologically-advanced life.  They are, after all, habitable.

But as a new paper in the Astrophysical Journal makes clear, the likelihood of a habitable zone planet being able to support complex life — anything beyond a microbe — is significantly limited by the amount of toxic chemicals such as carbon monoxide and excesses of carbon dioxide.

Eddie Schwieterman, a NASA postdoc at the University of California, Riverside and lead author of the article, told me that the odds for complex life on most exoplanets in their habitable zones weren’t great.

“A rough estimate is between 10-20% of habitable zone planets are truly suitable for analogs to humans and animals.” he said. “Of course, being located in this part of the habitable zone isn’t enough by itself – you still need the build-up of oxygen via the evolution of oxygenic photosynthesis and certain planetary biogeochemical cycles.”

 

A rendering of the exoplanet Kepler 442 b, compared in size to  Earth.  Kepler 442 b was detected using the Kepler Space Telescope and is 0ne of a handful of planets found so far deemed to be most likely to be habitable. But it’s 1200 light-years away, so learning its secrets will be challenging.

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The Message of Really, Really Extreme Life

Hydrothermal system at Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, where uniquely extreme life has been found in salt chimneys and surrounding water. The yellow deposits are a variety of sulphates and the red areas are deposits of iron oxides. Copper salts color the water green. (Felipe Gomez/Europlanet 2020 RI)

Ethiopia’s Dallol volcano and hot springs have created an environment about as hostile to life as can be imagined.

Temperatures in the supersaturated water reach more than 200 degrees F (94 C) and are reported to approach pure acidity, with an extraordinarily low pH of  0.25.  The environment is also highly salty, with salt chimneys common.

Yet researchers have just reported finding ultra-small bacteria living in one of the acidic, super-hot salt chimneys.  The bacteria are tiny — up to 20 times smaller than the average bacteria — but they are alive and in their own way thriving.

In the world of extremophiles, these nanohaloarchaeles order bacteria are certainly on the very edge of comprehension.  But much the same can be said of organisms that can withstand massive doses of radiation, that survive deep below the Earth’s surface with no hint of life support from the sun and its creations, that keep alive deep in glacier ice and even floating high in the atmosphere.  And as we know, spacecraft have to be well sterilized because bacteria (in hibernation) aboard can survive the trip to the moon or Mars.

Not life it is generally understood.  But the myriad extremophiles found around the globe in recent decades have brought home the reality that we really don’t know where and how life can survive;  indeed, these extremophiles often need their conditions to be super-severe to succeed.

And that’s what makes them so important for the search for life beyond Earth.  They are proof of concept that some life may well need planetary and atmospheric conditions that would have been considered utterly uninhabitable not long ago.

 

Montage from the Dallol site: (A) the sampling site, (B) the small chimneys (temperature of water 90 ºC. (C) D9 sample from a small chimney in (A). (D-L) Scanning Electron Microscope and (M-O) Scanning Transmission Electron Microscope images of sample D9 showing the morphologies of ultra-small microorganisms entombed in the mineral layers. (Gomez et al/Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure)

The unusual and extreme life and geochemistry of Dallol has been studied by a team led by Felipe Gómez from Astrobiology Center in Spain.… Read more

NExSS 2.0

Finding new worlds can be an individual effort, a team effort, an institutional effort. The same can be said for characterizing exoplanets and understanding how they are affected by their suns and other planets in their solar systems. When it comes to the search for possible life on exoplanets, the questions and challenges are too great for anything but a community. NASA’s NExSS initiative has been an effort to help organize, cross-fertilize and promote that community. This artist’s concept Kepler-47, the first two-star systems with multiple planets orbiting the two suns, suggests just how difficult the road ahead will be. ( NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle)

 

The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science, or “NExSS,”  began four years ago as a NASA initiative to bring together a wide range of scientists involved generally in the search for life on planets outside our solar system.

With teams from seventeen academic and NASA centers, NExSS was founded on the conviction that this search needed scientists from a range of disciplines working in collaboration to address the basic questions of the fast-growing field.

Among the key goals:  to investigate just how different, or how similar, different exoplanets are from each other; to determine what components are present on particular exoplanets and especially in their atmospheres (if they have one);  to learn how the stars and neighboring exoplanets interact to support (or not support) the potential of life;  to better understand how the initial formation of planets affects habitability, and what role climate plays as well.

Then there’s the  question that all the others feed in to:  what might scientists look for in terms of signatures of life on distant planets?

Not questions that can be answered alone by the often “stove-piped” science disciplines — where a scientist knows his or her astrophysics or geology or geochemistry very well, but is uncomfortable and unschooled in how other disciplines might be essential to understanding the big questions of exoplanets.

 

The original NExSS team was selected from groups that had won NASA grants and might want to collaborate with other scientists with overlapping interests and goals  but often from different disciplines. (NASA)

The original idea for this kind of interdisciplinary group came out of NASA’s Astrobiology Program, and especially from NASA astrobiology director Mary Voytek and colleague Shawn Domogal-Goldman of the Goddard Space Flight Center, as well as Doug Hudgins of NASA Astrophysics.  It was something of a gamble, since scientists who joined would essentially volunteer their time and work and would be asked to collaborate with other scientists in often new ways.… Read more

Our Ever-Growing Menagerie of Exoplanets

While we have never seen an exoplanet with anything near this kind of detail, scientists and artists now do know enough to represent them with characteristics that are plausible, given what is known about them..  (NASA)

With so many exoplanets already detected, with the pace of discovery continuing to be so fast, and with efforts to find more distant worlds so constant and global,  it’s easy to become somewhat blase´ about new discoveries.  After so many “firsts,” and so many different kinds of planets found in very different ways, it certainly seems that some of the thrill may be gone.

Surely the detection of a clearly “Earth-like planet” would cause new excitement — one that is not only orbiting in the habitable zone of its host star but also has signs of a potentially nurturing atmosphere in a generally supportive cosmic neighborhood.

But while many an exoplanet has been described as somewhat “Earth-like” and potentially habitable, further observation has consistently reduced the possibility of the planets actually hosting some form of biology.  The technology and knowledge base needed to find distant life is surely advancing, but it may well still have a long way to go.

In just the last few days, however, a slew of discoveries have been reported that highlight the allure and science of our new Exoplanet Era.  They may not be blockbusters by themselves, but they are together part of an immense scientific exploration under way, one that is re-shaping our understanding of the cosmos and preparing us for bigger discoveries and insights to come.

 

Already 3,940 exoplanets have been identified (as of April 17) with an additional 3,504 candidates waiting to be confirmed or discarded.  this is but the start since it is widely held now that virtually every star out there has a planet, or planets, orbiting it.   That’s billions of billions of planets.  This image is a collection of NASA exoplanet renderings.

What I have in mind are these discoveries:

  • The first Earth-sized planet detected by NASA’s year-old orbiting telescope TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite.)  TESS is designed to find planets orbiting massive stars in our near neighborhood, and it has already made 10 confirmed discoveries.  But finding a small exoplanet — 85 percent the size of Earth — is a promising result for a mission designed to not only locate as many as 20,000 new exoplanets, but to find 500 to 1,000 the rough size of Earth or SuperEarth. 
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A Significant Advance: Primitive Earth Life Survives an 18-Month Exposure to Mars-Like Conditions in Space

The European Space Agency’s BIOMEX array, outside the Russian Zvezda module of the ISS. (ESA)

The question of whether simple life can survive in space is hardly new, but it has lately taken on a new urgency.

It is not only a pressing scientific question — might life from Mars or another body have seeded life on Earth?  Might organisms similar to extreme Earth life survive Mars-like conditions? — but it is also has some very practical implications.  If humans are going to some day land and live on the moon or on Mars, they will need to grow food to survive.

So the question is pretty basic:  can Earth seeds or dormant life survive a long journey to deep space and can they then  grow in the protected but still extreme radiation, temperature, and vacuum  of deep space?

It was with these questions in mind that the European Space Agency funded a proposal from the German Institute of Planetary Research to send samples of a broad range of simple to more complex life to the International Space Station in 2014, and to expose the samples to extreme conditions outside the station.

Some of the findings have been reported earlier,  but last month the full results of the Biomex tests (Biology on Mars Experiment) were unveiled in the journal Astrobiology.

And the answer is that many, though certainly not all, of the the samples of snow and permafrost algae, cyanobacteria, archaea, fungi, biofilms, moss and lichens in the  did survive their 533 days of living dangerous in their dormant states.  When brought back to Earth and returned to normal conditions, they returned to active life.

“For the majority of the chosen organisms, it was the first and the longest time they ever were exposed to space and Mars-like conditions,” Jean-Pierre Paul de Vera, principal investigator of the effort, wrote to me.  And the results were promising.

 

For the BIOMEX experiment, on 18 August 2014, Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev placed several hundred samples in an experiment container on the exterior of the Zvezda’Russian ISS module. The containers, open to the surrounding space environment, held primitive terrestrial organisms such as mosses, lichens, fungi, bacteria, archaea and algae, as well as cell membranes and pigments.

 

A microbiologist and planetary researcher at the German Space Agency’s Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, de Vera and his team went from Antarctica to the parched Atacama desert in Chile, from the high Alps to the steppe highlands of central Spain to find terrestrial life surviving in extreme conditions (extremophiles.)

The samples were then placed in regolith (soil, dust and other rocky materials) simulated to be as close as possible to what is found on Mars.Read more

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