CU-Boulder Researchers To Study Origins And Evolution Of Life In The Universe

Scientists believe that habitable environments may exist in the subsurface of Mars as well as the interiors of some moons of the outer planets. Rather than photosynthesis, the researchers believe a number of life forms, similar to the giant tube worms shown here, may be powered by “chemosynthesis,” a process that does not require sunlight. Image Credit: NOAA

Scientists believe that habitable environments may exist in the subsurface of Mars as well as the interiors of some moons of the outer planets. Rather than photosynthesis, the researchers believe a number of life forms, similar to the giant tube worms shown here, may be powered by “chemosynthesis,” a process that does not require sunlight. Image Credit: NOAA

October 9, 2014 – NASA has awarded a team led by the University of Colorado Boulder, which includes scientists from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP), more than $7 million to study aspects of the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that we were selected, in part because it was such a tough competition,” said LASP Research Associate Thomas McCollom, a co-investigator on the effort. “I think it speaks to the quality of our team – we have a lot of stellar people who are leaders in different aspects of astrobiology.”

The team, led by CU-Boulder Professor Alexis Templeton of the geological sciences department, will be researching what scientists call “rock-powered life.” Rocky planets store enormous amounts of chemical energy, that, when released through the interaction of rocks and water, have the ability to power living systems on Earth. Rather than photosynthesis, the researchers believe a number of life forms in the solar system and perhaps beyond may be powered by chemosynthesis, a process that does not require sunlight.

Minerals that form as a result of these water-rock reactions on Earth have also been detected on Mars, leading scientists to speculate that habitable or potentially inhabited environments may exist in the Martian subsurface as well as the interiors of Europa and Ganymede – two of the moons of Jupiter – and Triton, a moon of Neptune, said McCollom.

The team will approach the project from several angles, said CU-Boulder Research Associate Lisa Mayhew, a co-investigator on the project. Field sites, both on land and in the ocean, will be used as test beds to determine the habitability of rock-powered systems; laboratory experiments will investigate how the water-rock reactions proceed in the presence and absence of life; and the philosophical definition of what constitutes life will be explored, Mayhew said.

In addition to Templeton, McCollom and Mayhew, the fourth CU-Boulder co-investigator on the winning proposal is Professor Carol Cleland of CU-Boulder’s philosophy department. Other co-investigators on the CU-Boulder led proposal include scientists from the Colorado School of Mines, Montana State University, Arizona State University, NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, Michigan State University, the University of Rhode Island, the University of Utah and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In addition to the 13 investigators on the team, there are four collaborators, including a CU-Boulder Associate Professor Brian Hynek of LASP, who also is director of CU-Boulder’s Center for Astrobiology.

“This award further solidifies CU’s longstanding reputation and expertise in astrobiology,” said Hynek, also a faculty member in geological sciences. “It will provide additional training and opportunities for students, as well as the public, in this exciting field of study.”

NASA has awarded seven grants totaling almost $50 million to seven research teams that will explore the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe. The other six teams are led by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; NASA Ames Research Center; NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California; the Search for Extraterrestrial Existence (SETI) in Mountain View, California; The University of California, Riverside; and the University of Montana in Missoula.

“With the Curiosity rover characterizing the potential habitability of Mars, the Kepler mission discovering new planets outside our solar system, and Mars 2020 on the horizon, these research teams will provide the critical interdisciplinary expertise to help interpret data from these mission and future astrobiology-focused missions,” said Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division, at NASA Headquarters, Washington.