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Penn State receives new NASA astrobiology grant

Developing strategies for finding life on other planets and in extreme environments on Earth will be the focus of Penn State's new astrobiology initiative under a five-year grant from NASA's Astrobiology Institute for "Signatures of Life from Earth and Beyond."

Christopher H. House, associate professor of geosciences, will lead an interdisciplinary team to develop methods to detect and characterize life, look for biological signatures in relevant ecosystems in ancient rocks and other places on Earth, and evaluate the potential for biological signatures to exist in extraterrestrial settings. He becomes director of the existing Penn State Astrobiology Research Center and will take the Center in a new direction.

PSARC was established in 1998 under the first set of five-year grants by NASA's Astrobiology Institute. Headed by Hiroshi Ohmoto, professor of geochemistry, the Center received a second five-year grant in 2003. Ohmoto remains part of the PSARC.

"Penn State is the only university that has been continuously funded by NASA's Astrobiology Institute," says House. "In many ways this is a continuation of the first two five-year grants, but in other ways, it is a new proposal, a new direction with new people involved in the research."

NASA announced awards averaging $7 million each for 10 teams nationwide to study the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

The Penn State team will develop and test possible indicators of the existence of life. These will include innovative approaches for analysis of cells and other organic material, for determining if amounts or ratios of metals and isotopes indicate life, and for using DNA to study present and past life.

In their effort to develop ways to search for extraterrestrial life, the researchers will look to extreme locations on Earth including Israel's Dead Sea, Greenland glacier ice and the methane seeps of the Eel River Basin, California, for microbial life. Another place to look for signs of microbial life is in ancient rocks. Those dating from 3,800 million years ago to 570 million years ago may have geochemical signatures produced by microbial life. Studying the rocks will also show how those signatures are affected by aging.

Looking to the skies, the center will also collaborate with the newly formed Penn State Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds. Team members will look at the abundance of sulfur gases and how these gases evolve on young planets and at the formation of planets.

Other Penn State researchers who are co-principal investigators on the grant are Steinn Sigurdsson, associate professor of astronomy and astrophysics; Michael A. Arthur, professor of geosciences; Matthew Fantle, assistant professor of geosciences; Katherine H. Freeman, professor of geosciences; Lee Kump, professor of geosciences; Mark E. Patzkowski, associate professor of geosciences; James Kasting, distinguished professor of geosciences; Beth A. Shapiro, assistant professor of biology; Blair Hedges, professor of biology; Jean E. Brenchley, professor of microbiology and biotechnology; Jennifer L. Macalady, assistant professor of geosciences; J. Greg Ferry, the Stanley Person Professor of microbiology and molecular biology; and Susan L. Brantley, professor of geosciences.

Other team members are Kevin McKeegan, professor of geochemistry; J. William Schopf, professor of paleobiology, and Jim Lyons, assistant research geochemist, all at UCLA; and Victoria Orphan, assistant professor of geobiology, California Institute of Technology.

The new interdisciplinary teams will become new members of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, located at NASA's Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif. Other university teams are from the University of Hawaii, Honolulu; Arizona State University, Tempe; Carnegie Institution of Washington; Georgia Institute of Technology, Atlanta; and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, N.Y.


Contact: A'ndrea Elyse Messer
Penn State

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