This is Parts III and IV of my blog about doing astrobiology in Iceland. Read parts I and II.
Part III: Field Work: ATP and the search for life in hostile environments
Icelandic horses (with the most fabulous 80s hair) in front of the Brenninsteinsalda Rhyolite Mountains. Photo courtesy of Rebecca Wolsey (PhD Student, Open University, UK).
A key element to the school was the ability to use in-situ techniques to investigate how life can survive hostile environments. Iceland was a great place to find hostile environments (just ask the sheep from the lava cave), and our expert field guides and scientists were prepped to teach us the art of finding life. One method for looking for life in volcanic and glacial environments is to detect the generic biomarker, Adenosine triphosphate (ATP). ATP is the primary source of free energy in all living cells. ATP is produced only in living cells during photosynthesis and cellular respiration and consumed in cellular processes. It is a key indicator of cellular activity, and a major biomarker when trying to find habitable conditions for life, since all known living organisms require ATP.
The road to Mordor… I mean, Landmannalaugar. Photo courtesy of Christina Richey
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The Nordic-NASA Astrobiology Summer School “Water, Ice and the Origin of Life in the Universe,” was held July 1-15 in Iceland. The school was organized by Wolf Geppert, the director of the Stockholm University Astrobiology Center, and Karen Meech, the director of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the University of Hawai’i. The school participants included 48 graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in the fields of biology, chemistry, geology, astronomy, and I was lucky enough to be one of those 48 selected. The school consisted of several methods for learning about the origins of life: lecturing from experts, poster sessions for the students, open discussions, excursions, and field work in extreme environments.
The view from our lecture hall in Reykjavik, Iceland. Photo courtesy of Christina Richey.
A typical Icelandic country road, lined with sheep. Photo courtesy of Christina Richey.
Part I: Lectures and Open discussions
Over the entire 2 weeks, approximately 40 hours of lecturing occurred. Experts were brought in from each field of interest in astrobiology to discuss topics that could lead to a thorough understanding of the Origin of Life. The first 3 days were spent participating in lectures from experts within the fields of the formation of elements in space, as well as astronomy and planetary science topics. The formation of water and organics is extremely important to life within our Universe, and this topic, from an astrobiological perspective, is well documented and studied in terms of the processes for forming water. Karen Meech gave a public talk on comets, as well as several detailed lectures on comet physics and asteroids to the school participants. Karen’s talk discussed the big unknowns for water on Earth; such as where did the Earth’s water content come from (how much from comets, hydrated asteroids, solar nebula gases, and chemical reactions on Earth) or even how much water is currently here on Earth. Jack Hunter Waite from South West Research Institute discussed icy satellites and highlights from the Cassini-Huygens mission. David Des Marais, a senior scientist at NASA Ames, led lectures on habitable environments and life, as well as future mission and the search for life of Mars. Brown University’s Jim Head instructed us on the ability to use Icelandic geology and terrain as an analog to the Martian surface, as the lack of vegetation and the igneous petrology is of interests to astrobiologists.
One of our guest lecturers and expert glaciologist, Þorsteinn Þorsteinsson of the Icelandic Meteorological Office, prepping for work on the Solheimajökull glacier, which is the southwestern outlet of the Mýrdalsjökull icecap. Photo courtesy of Sophie Nixon (PhD Student, University of Edinburgh, UK).
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The center of our galaxy glows in this infrared image taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope. This data was originally part of a more complete view of the plane of the Milky Way, but then was given different contrast to better highlight the features of this region around the galactic center. The blue haze that brightens towards the center of the image is due to the sheer number of stars, the green is from carbon-rich dust molecules (called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons or PAHs) swirling around the galaxy’s core, illuminated by starlight. The yellow-red patches are thermal glow from warm dust. PAHs, dust and clouds of gas are ingredients needed for star formation. The bright feature in the very center is a cluster of stars orbiting the massive black hole at our galaxy’s center. Read more at JPL’s press release.
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Image credit: NASA image created by Jesse Allen, using Landsat data
provided bythe University of Maryland’s Global Land Cover Facility.
The biggest NASA news this week was the astrobiology press conference that had people buzzing about what the new discovery could be. The press release, when it was finally announced turned about to be about researchers who worked with microbes that live in the toxic Lake Mono; it has a pH of near 10, with a high (200 µM) concentration of arsenic in the water.
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