RESEARCH & PROJECTS
 

Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures

TEAM MEMBERS

Heather Graham, Eric V Anslyn, Pan Conrad, Lee Cronin, Andrew Ellington, Jamie Elsila Cook, Pete Girguis, Chris House, Chris Kempes, Eric Libby, Paul Mahaffy, Jay Nadeau, Barbara Sherwood Lollar, Andrew Steele, Anais Roussel, Andrew Hyde, Tyler Garvin, Geoff Cooper, Lingyu Zeng, Arda Gulay, Béatrice Leydier, Xiang Li, Andrej Grubisic, Jeffrey Marlow, William B Brinckerhoff, Matthew Fricke, Melanie Moses

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

LAB’s initial research focuses on four features of life that do not presuppose a specific biochemistry, using these concepts to begin to build a framework for looking for life “as we don’t know it.” These features include patterns of surface complexity, elemental accumulation, and evidence of energy transfer. These indicators of life were chosen since they can be framed in a way that doesn’t bias observations toward the specific forms of life on Earth and are approaches that could be implemented on flight missions. Pulling these concepts together, LAB also supports a computational team developing probabilistic and theoretical models to understand the full possibility space for life and a curation group responsible for designing tests and compiling results in a model that can be used to guide sample and instrument selection for future life detection missions.

PI: SARAH JOHNSON

Oceans Across Time and Space (OAST)

TEAM MEMBERS

Jeff Bowman, Doug Bartlett, Cristopher Carr, Anne Dekas, Peter Doran, Jennifer Glass, Ellery Ingall, Alison Olcott Marshall, Alexandra Pontefract, Christopher Reinhard, Krista Soderlund, Sanjoy Som, Frank Stewart, Amanda Stockton, James Wray, Joseph Levy, Greg Rouse, Craig Marshall, Chris Bennett, John Moores, Ray Jayawardhana, Tim Lyons, Natalie Robinson, Craig Stevens, Mike Williams, Inga Smith, Justin Lawrence, Jacob Buffo

PI: BRITNEY SCHMIDT

Center for Life Detection Science (CLDS)

TEAM MEMBERS

Lee Bebout, Will Brinckerhoff, Chris Dateo, Alfonso Davila, David Des Marais, Jen Eigenbrode, Craig Everroad, Stephanie Getty, Danny Glavin, Linda Jahnke, Barbara Lafuente Valverde, Owen Lehmer,Paul Mahaffy, Niki Parenteau, Andrew Porhille, Richard Quinn, Andro Rios, Sanjoy Som, Mary Beth Wilhelm

PI: TORI HOEHLER

Sorting out active vs. inactive microbes in subsurface oceanic crust Icy World analogs

TEAM MEMBERS

Dr. Jackie Goordial, Dr. Anne Booker, Mr. Tim D’Angelo, Dr. Melody Lindsay

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

Orcutt will be leading an international team in May 2019 to explore microbial life within the eastern flank of the Juan de Fuca Ridge - an Icy Ocean World analog. This project proposes to focus on biosphere-lithosphere processes occurring in subseafloor oceanic crust, and to specifically identify the active members of diverse microbial communities that are responsible for specific processes through application of new methodology. Fluid-rock reactions occurring in oceanic crust can support chemotrophic metabolisms far removed from surface phototrophic processes. Low density microbial communities in this ecosystem survive on limited energy, which makes this a prime location for testing new methodologies for life and activity detection. Microbial communities in this subseafloor crustal habitat contain numerous deeply branching phylogenetic clades, so the physiological strategies used by these microbes are worthy of study for unravelling the evolution of life’s functional potential. Thus, studying this analog system can provide fundamental new information relevant to NASA Astrobiology and the Network For Life Detection.

PI: BETH ORCUTT

Biosignatures of the 'Dirty Ice' of the McMurdo Ice Shelf: Analogues for biological oases during the Cryogenian and on other icy world

PI: ROGER SUMMONS

Advancing the TRL of a Compact, High Dynamic Range Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrometer

PI: WILLIAM HUG

Chlorophyll d as a model for biosignature evolution

TEAM MEMBERS

Nancy Kiang, Niki Parenteau, Min Chen, Robert Blankenship

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

My team is investigating the lower energy limits for oxygen production via photosynthesis as a means of understanding how similar processes may occur on bodies orbiting other, cooler stars. On Earth, far-red light is the lowest solar energy level that can power oxygen production due to energy limits on the oxidation of water to molecular oxygen. As this reaction has been crucial for the development of advanced life on our planet, understanding the energetic limitations of its production is a key component of modeling exoplanet atmospheres for signs of life. Our team is studying the model far-red oxygenic phototroph, the cyanobacterium Acaryochloris, to understand these energy limits, both in context of life around other stars and the history of life on our planet. While it appears this extreme boundary-pushing method of photosynthesis may be a recent invention in our biosphere, it is likely that life on planets and moons orbiting red M dwarf stars (the most abundant in our galaxy) would be driven to these extremes in order to produce oxygenic biospheres.

PI: WESLEY SWINGLEY

Exploring destruction of biomolecules in Martian rocks and regolith by Cosmic Rays

PI: ALEXANDER PAVLOV

Investigating a novel role for iron redox cycling in the lithification of microbial mats and the rise and fall of stromatolites in Earth history

Millimeter-wave spectrometer for chirality and relative abundance determination of amino acid biomarkers

TEAM MEMBERS

Robert Hodyss, Michael Malask, Ken Cooper, Deacon Nemchick, Pr Brooks Pate, Martin Holdren

PI: SHANSHAN YU

Membrane Extraction for Space Applications

TEAM MEMBERS

Strawn Toler, Jennifer Stern, Charles Malespin

PI: TIM SHORT

Mapping X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometer (MapX)

TEAM MEMBERS

Thomas Bristow, Robert Downs, Marc Gailhanou, Franck Marchis, Douglas Ming, Richard Morris, Philippe Sarrazin, Vincent Armando Sole, Kathleen Thompson, Philippe Walter, Michael Wilson, Albert Yen, Samuel Webb, Richard Walroth

PI: DAVID BLAKE

Exceptional preservation of Ediacaran organic biosignatures yields novel insights into the marine environments and ecology that hosted early multicellular organisms

TEAM MEMBERS

Andrey Bekker, Carina Lee, Kelden Pehr, Adam Hoffmann, Nathan Marshall, Adriana Rizzo

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

The main goal of my research program is understanding the production, alteration and preservation of organic (carbon-based) molecules on Earth over geologic time to track the evolution of life and surface planetary environmental change. This organic matter was produced predominantly by biological organisms, which were exclusively unicellular microbes confined to aquatic environments for a large proportion of the 4.6 Gyr history of our planet during the Precambrian (>541 Myr. I use state-of-the-art chemical techniques for analyzing individual organic compounds found in ancient sedimentary rocks, oils and meteorites and apply a range of complementary stable isotope and inorganic geochemical approaches for understanding carbon and other element biogeochemical cycling in the modern and ancient biosphere. I have continued to use and refine novel analytical approaches that I helped develop to address topical issues in geobiology, astrobiology and organic geochemistry. My broad research program encompasses formulating strategies for detecting robust molecular biosignatures preserved in the sedimentary record across the breadth of geological time; including tracking the expansion of the eukaryotic domain of life through the Proterozoic Eon (2500-541 Myr), the appearance of early animals and recording fundamental transitions in planktonic microbial communities with changing oceanic redox chemistry through major extinction events in the Paleozoic era. My research group looks in detail at the variety and abundance of the biomarker pool preserved by being covalently linked into geomacromolecules (such as kerogen), and we have developed sensitive analytical methods for analysis of these bound biomarker compounds.

PI: GORDON LOVE

Toward Geophysical Detection of the Biological Modification of Ice

TEAM MEMBERS

Katie Primm

PI: DAVID STILLMAN

Field Exploration and Life Detection Sampling for Planetary and Astrobiology Research (FELDSPAR)

TEAM MEMBERS

Morgan Cable, Elena Amador-French, Diana Gentry, Erika Rader, Gayathri Murekesan, Adam Stevens, Wolf Geppert, David Cullen

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

Dr. Stockton's research focuses on the use of microfluidic technologies to explore the big questions of astrobiology, including the search for life beyond Earth, exploring the chemistry when life arose, and studying the extreme limits of life on Earth. In her own laboratory, Dr. Stockton focuses on the low TRL of enabling technologies for low-cost missions, including miniaturized impact penetrators as PI of the PICASSO-funded Icy Moon Penetrator Organic Analyzer (IMPOA), and serves as a Co-I on the development of the Enceladus Organic Analyzer (EOA) and collaborator on the Microfluidic Organic Analyzer for Biosignatures (MOAB) at Berkeley Space Science Laboratory, led by PI Dr. Richard Mathies. As a scientific collaborator with the Center for Chemical Evolution, she advises REU students exploring the organic and inorganic chemistry at the emergence of life. Her work also includes a significant field work component, leading FELDSPAR deployment to Mars analog sites in volcanic regions of Iceland and iChip deployment to hydrothermal surface systems in Iceland and Japan.

PI: AMANDA STOCKTON

Biosignature Preservation in Sulfate-Dominated Hypersaline Environments

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

Haughton Impact Structure, Devon Island, Nunavut, Canada

https://doi.org/10.1089/ast.2015.1393

https://doi.org/10.1089/ast.2013.1100

Cariboo / Thompson Plateau, British Colombia, Canada

https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2017.01819

PI: ALEXANDRA PONTEFRACT

SLICE Spectral Signs of Life in Ice

TEAM MEMBERS

Marco Tedesco and Shujie Wang, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University

Christine Foreman, Markus Dieser, Heidi Smith and Mitch Messmer, Montana State University

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

Identifying life on other planets is one of the most exciting challenges of our times. The Earth's Polar Regions have long been recognized among the best terrestrial analogs for conditions on Mars, with cryoconite holes being one of the proposed habitats for life on other planets. Cryoconite holes are mini-entrained ecosystems, found in the ablation zone of glaciers that provide conditions by which subsurface liquid water can exist in spite of otherwise hostile environmental conditions. 

 

One of the tools in the search for life has been the collection and interpretation of hyperspectral images; however the validation of reliable biomarkers in this data remains ongoing. The hyperspectral and associated measurements collected by SLICE are being used to support the analysis of data collected by the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM), the OMEGA spectrometer on the Mars Express ESA mission and the THEMIS instrument on the MARS Odyssey mission. By studying the terrestrial analogs of cryoconite holes, we are isolating and culturing cryoconite organisms, determining their spectral signatures through in-situ and laboratory hyperspectral measurements and developing a spectral library of biosignatures. In this context, cryoconite holes represent a unique environment on Earth that resembles life on Mars. Consequently, our project directly addresses several of the main program elements of the new Astrobiology Strategy (2015) namely, early life and increasing complexity, co-evolution of life and the physical environment and identifying, exploring, and characterizing environments for habitability and biosignatures.

PI: CHRISTINE FOREMAN

In-situ Vent Analysis Divebot for Exobiology Research (InVADER)

TEAM MEMBERS

Tayro Acosta-Maeda, Jan Amend, Laurie Barge, Justin Burnett, Renaud Detry, Ivria Doloboff, Ninos Hermis, Deborah Kelley, Dana Manalang, Aaron Margburg, Anupam Misra, Anuscheh Nawaz, Roy Price, Fredrik Rehnmark, Marianne Smith, Pablo Sobron, Blair Thornton, David Yu, Kris Zacny

PI: PABLO SOBRON

Mechanisms of Organic Compound Reactivity in Habitable Worlds

TEAM MEMBERS

Ian Gould, Hilairy Hartnett, Lynda Williams, Charlene Estrada, Kirt Robinson, Grant Loescher, Garrett Shaver

PI: EVERETT SHOCK

Miniaturized Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometer (ICPMS) for Trace Element Analysis

TEAM MEMBERS

Ben Farcy, William McDonough, Mazdak Taghioskoui, Mehdi Benna, William Brinckerhoff, Grace Ni

PI: RICARDO AREVALO

The Thermal Maturity of Neoproterozoic Strata: Carbonate Clumped Isotope Thermometry and Biomarker Analyses

TEAM MEMBERS

Tyler Mackey, Julia Wilcots, Marjorie Cantine, Noah Anderson

PI: KRISTIN BERGMANN

The Enceladus Organic Analyzer (EOA)

TEAM MEMBERS

Anna Butterwirth, Amanda Stockton, Jungkyu Kim, James New, Matin Golozar

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

Mathies' work in the area of analytical chemistry, biotechnology and the Human Genome Project led to the development of new high-speed, high-throughput DNA analysis technologies such as capillary array electrophoresis and energy transfer (ET) fluorescent dye labels for DNA sequencing and analysis. In particular, his development of ET fluorescent labels was a critical contribution to the early completion of the Human Genome sequence. He also pioneered the development of microfabricated capillary electrophoresis devices and microfabricated integrated sample preparation and detection methods for lab-on-a-chip analysis systems that are being applied to DNA sequencing, diagnostics, forensics, pathogen detection and space exploration. The combination of high sensitivity laser-induced fluorescence detection and microfabricated capillary electrophoresis led to the development of the Mars Organic Analyzer prototype. This instrument provides part-per-billion sensitivity for the detection of organic amines, amino acids, aldehydes, ketones, organic acids and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in solar system exploration. The MOA prototype has also been used to demonstrate that amino acids and dipeptides are synthesized in model interstellar ices through simulated galactic cosmic ray irradiation. Coupled with integrated microfluidic sample processing, this instrument is the basis for pending proposals to chemically explore icy moons including Enceladus (Saturn) and Europa (Jupiter) for extraterrestrial life.

PI: RICHARD MATHIES

fs-LDPI MS mapping of organic compounds in deep time Earth sediments: A tool for determination of the spatial distribution of lipid biosignatures at the micron scale

TEAM MEMBERS

Luke Hanley, Joey Pasterski, Raveendra C. Wickramasinghe

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

The UIC Organic Geochemistry group focuses on means to separate potential earth molecular biosignatures and potential astrobiological molecular signals of life. For the first project, I am developing with collaborator Luke Hanley (Department of Chemistry, UIC) and my Graduate student Joey Pasterski, the use of a prototype laser desorption-laser ionization-mass spectrometer capable of mapping and depth profiling organic compounds in rocks at the micron scale. Such an approach allows for the observation of organic compounds within their mineral matrix and to better assess their origins, including contaminations. Our group, in collaboration with D'Arcy Meyer-Dombard (Department of Earth and environmental sciences, UIC) also focuses on understanding the effects of life at very high pressure on membrane lipids. This project seeks to determine unambiguous targets for life detection in the high-pressure oceans of Jovian satellites, especially Titan. Finally, our group is interested in separating the information provided by molecular biosignatures derived from a current ecosystem from those provided by legacy biosignatures derived from past ecosystems that occupied the same environment. Such an approach, led by Graduate student Luoth Chou, may allow for the distinction between life versus past life biosignatures in an astrobiological context.

PI: FABIEN KENIG

Preservation and detection of extremophiles in Mars-analog halite and gypsum

TEAM MEMBERS

Anna Sofia Andeskie

PI: KATHLEEN BENISON

SELFI (Submillimeter Enceladus Life Fundamentals Instrument)

TEAM MEMBERS

Carie Anderson, Damon Bradley, Terry Hurford, Tilak Hewagama, Tim Livengood, Paul Racette, ,Karen Junge

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

SELFI (Submillimeter Enceladus Life Fundamentals Instrument) will diagnose the composition of the Enceladus subsurface ocean as entrained by its plumes and decipher its history and current environment. SELFI uses submillimeter heterodyne spectroscopy to remotely observe 14 molecular species simultaneously that are important in the context of life and habitability entrained by the Enceladus plumes that sample the subsurface ocean (including five, colored green, of the six CHNOPS elements necessary for life). SELFI can be adapted to explore other Solar System targets.

PI: GORDON CHIN

Using Proteome Dynamics of Psychrophilic Bacteria to Decipher Metabolic Strategies and Protein Signatures Indicative of Sustained Life in Ice

TEAM MEMBERS

Karen Junge, Bonnie Light, Brook Nunn, Marcella Ewart Sarmiento, Jonathon Toner

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

Icy worlds are key targets for astrobiology because of their potential to harbor liquid water. On Mars, possible occurrences of near-surface liquid water are widely believed to be brine-rich aqueous flows. Enceladus, Europa, and possibly Pluto are thought to contain large saline oceans beneath kilometers-thick ice covers, and, on Earth, microbial habitats in polar and glaciated regions are found in brine-rich sea ice matrices and glacial veins and inclusions. Throughout its history, Earth has experienced global glaciations (so called “Snowball Earth” events) with life presumably surviving in refugia. Such protected environments may have been in brine, which remains liquid at subzero temperatures. Recent studies have contributed greatly to our understanding of low-temperature biology and extended the lower temperature limits for life. Bacteria that are growing, metabolically active, and surviving in low-temperature environments may have characteristics that reflect the evolution and physiological adaptations required for life to survive in such conditions. Detection of these characteristics may hold answers to questions about the origin, evolution, and ultimate fate of microbial cells and their biosignatures.
The collaborative team at the University of Washington plans to discover proteome dynamics and biosignatures indicative of microbial activity in low temperature environments, by measuring proteome shifts in saline subzero environments representative of those found on present-day Earth, past Snowball Earth, and present-day Mars. This research will reveal key molecular responses and dominant protein biosignatures of microbes at sub-zero temperatures, high salinities, and in the presence of ice/perchlorate. Studying these high salinity, sub-zero analog systems can provide fundamental new information relevant to NASA Astrobiology and the Network For Life Detection.

PI: BROOK NUNN, KAREN JUNGE

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Probing in situ microbial activity and function using stable isotopes and substrate analogs

 

TEAM MEMBERS

Anthony Kohtz, Mackenzie Lynes, George Schaible

PROJECT DESCRIPTION

Roland Hatzenpichler is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Montana State University (MSU), Bozeman. Roland's research focuses on microbial ecophysiology, the study of the function and activity of microorganisms within their native habitat. Research questions addressed in his lab are: What are the factors controlling microbial in situ activity? What are the limits to metabolism in terms of energy, space, and time? What is the physiology of uncultured microbes and their contribution to global biochemical cycling? And, what is the biology of obligate multicellular bacteria lacking a single-cell stage? To address these questions, Roland's research group applies an integrative approach that bridges the two extremes of the microbial scale bar, the individual cell and the whole community, and develops new methodologies to study the metabolic activity of cells in their natural environment.