Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures


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


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.


Oceans Across Time and Space (OAST)


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


Center for Life Detection Science (CLDS)


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


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


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


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.


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


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


Chlorophyll d as a model for biosignature evolution


Nancy Kiang, Niki Parenteau, Min Chen, Robert Blankenship


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.


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


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


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


Membrane Extraction for Space Applications


Strawn Toler, Jennifer Stern, Charles Malespin


Mapping X-ray Fluorescence Spectrometer (MapX)


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


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


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


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.


Toward Geophysical Detection of the Biological Modification of Ice


Katie Primm


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


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


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.


Biosignature Preservation in Sulfate-Dominated Hypersaline Environments


Magdalena Osburn, Christopher Carr, Jack Szostak, Shuhei Ono, Virgnia Walker



This research focuses on developing a comprehensive understanding of a hypersaline, Mars analog environment, addressing the central question: “What types of biosignatures form and are preserved over time?” We are addressing this question specifically in a magnesium sulfate dominated system as sulfate salts have been widely documented on Mars, but are not the dominant type here on Earth. Here we focus on understanding four different biosignatures, each with varying residency times in the geologic record: DNA, amino acids, lipids and sulfur isotopic fractionation signatures. Salt has a documented ability to preserve biological molecules over longer timescales than non-saline environments, and whole cells have been preserved in a viable state within fluid inclusions on the order of thousands of years. The field site is located in and around Clinton, British Columbia, Canada. Currently our team is working on the Basque Lakes, Last Chance Lake and Salt Lake.


SLICE Spectral Signs of Life in Ice


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

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


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.


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


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


Mechanisms of Organic Compound Reactivity in Habitable Worlds


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


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


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


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


Tyler Mackey, Julia Wilcots, Marjorie Cantine, Noah Anderson


The Enceladus Organic Analyzer (EOA)


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


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.


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


Luke Hanley, Joey Pasterski, Raveendra C. Wickramasinghe


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.


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


Anna Sofia Andeskie


SELFI (Submillimeter Enceladus Life Fundamentals Instrument)


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


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.


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


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


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.



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



Anthony Kohtz, Mackenzie Lynes, George Schaible



Detecting the fundamental chiral building blocks of life


Gypsum-hosted biosignatures in subterranean chemosynthetic ecosystems


Heather Graham, Jennifer Stern, Scott Wankel



Developing Methane Isotopologues as Interplanetary Biosignatures


We will conduct a program of experiments to evaluate the potential of methane clumped isotope ratios as geochemical and biogeochemical tracers for solar system bodies in general.  Multiply substituted isotopologues of methane are well suited as tracers of methane formation pathways in general, and potential biosignatures in particular. They remove the difficulties associated with using bulk carbon and hydrogen isotope ratios on other worlds where the geochemical context necessary for interpreting these ratios are by necessity lacking.  However, uncertainties remain about the uniqueness of the isotopologue signatures.  We will conduct experiments that will mitigate these uncertainties.  Our work will inform future missions about the potential benefits of including in-situ measurements of rare methane isotopologues on Mars, Enceladus, and other bodies where the origin of methane is a key geochemical and biogeochemical tracer. 

We will carry out a series of experiments on microbial methane formation and oxidation and a set of experiments on abiotic synthesis of methane.  Our goal is to disambiguate the mass-18 isotopologue signatures of microbial methanogenesis, bacterial oxidation of methane, and abiotic methane formation pathways.  This experimental program builds on five years of data collection in natural settings and in laboratory experiments that have shown that the mass-18 isotopologues of methane have great potential as biosignatures if some of the lingering uncertainties about uniqueness of relating their relative abundances to specific pathways can be eliminated. Abiotic synthesis experiments are aimed at exposing the effects of temperature on kinetic mass-18 isotopologue abundances produced abiotically and on the potential role of the combinatorial effect.  We will determine whether or not a false positive biosignature can be produced abiotically and if so, under what conditions. 



Ultra-Violet Detector Innovation for Raman Exploration and CharacTerization (UV-DIRECT) of Ocean Worlds


Shahid Aslam, Tilak Hewagama, Nicolas Gorius, Anand Sampath, Jonathan Schuster


UV-DIRECT enables the identification of minerals, volatiles, organic molecules, biopolymers, water, and other hydrous phases to assess habitability and detect signatures of life in ocean world environments. UV-DIRECT encompasses the development of a compact, energy efficient, ruggedized linear detector array that is impervious to visible light with ppb sensitivity for in situ surface exploration using UV Raman spectroscopy.



Cold and dry limit to life: Understanding microbial activity in dry permafrost samples from the newly discovered Elephants Head, Antarctica


Our goal is to investigate a newly discovered dry permafrost location at Elephant's Head, Antarctica to understand whether cold and dry permafrost represents a natural limit to life on Earth, or whether the results at University Valley, Antarctica are unique. Our objectives are to (1) detect present day biological activity and (2) look for evidence of past activity to understand the preservation potential of biosignatures in dry permafrost and underlying ice cemented permafrost soils.



How Microbes Adapt to Living in the Upper Atmosphere: Implications for Cloud Formation, and Life During Early Earth and Elsewhere in the Universe


The abundance of microorganisms in the atmosphere can be high enough to absorb solar radiation and modulate the formation and chemical processes in clouds, thereby affecting the hydrological cycle and climate. Several bacterial species are known to serve as efficient ice nuclei based on an excreted protein (InaZ) that can initiate the formation of ice at temperatures as high as -4°C and thus, potentially participate in cloud formation in the atmosphere. Beyond this, very little quantitative understanding exists on the efficiency of ice nuclei (IN) or cloud condensation nuclei (CCN; when ambient temperature is above the freezing point) formation by different microbial species and more importantly, which cell properties control the observed CCN/IN activity. Yet, condensing water vapors around the cell (i.e., CCN activity) was probably one of the very first cellular functions that enabled life during the early history of (hot) Earth. Therefore, identifying these cellular properties and corresponding proteins, and studying their phylogenetic distribution in the tree of life, e.g., how ancestral such proteins may be, may provide new insights into early life. Further, how the physiology and CCN/IN activity of a cell changes during environmental transition (e.g., increasing temperatures, greenhouse gases and UV) also remains essentially unknown; yet, these cellular adaptations are presumably important for successful survival in the atmosphere and during climate change as well as for survival in the hot and gaseous primordial soup. How life adapts to living in the atmosphere is not only relevant for early life and bioaerosol-cloud-precipitation-climate interactions but, more importantly, for Exobiology as the atmosphere is one of the most extreme environments on our planet and a good analog for airborne life elsewhere. 

This project will address these issues by studying the CCN/IN activities of different cell types collected from the atmosphere under changing environmental conditions using the advanced instrumentation that we recently developed to measure these activities. Following these laboratory experiments, we will leverage a plethora of archived samples collected on board specialized NASA aircrafts to test our findings from the laboratory in-situ, using culture-independent techniques such as metagenomics (DNA level, who is there) and metatranscriptomics (what gene functions they activate). To achieve these goals, a combination of isolate manipulation studies, shotgun metatranscriptomics, and advanced laboratory instrumentation for measuring CCN/IN efficiency of cells will be employed, building upon a substantial body of relevant preliminary results and available infrastructure in the Konstantinidis Lab. The project will provide multifaceted learning experiences for graduate students at the interface of microbiology and genomics with aerosol science and chemistry. This project will contribute to at least one important area of the Exobiology program: (ii) to understand the phylogeny and physiology of microorganisms whose characteristics may reflect the nature of primitive environments.



Targeted Life Detection in Subsurface Serpentinites


Eric Boyd, Srishti Kashyap, Tristan Caro, Mason Munro-Ehrlich, Dan Colman, Rachel Spietz, Alexis England


Our project will demonstrate how biological activity is localized in the serpentinite subsurface and further develop a framework for life-detection in fractured rock hosted ecosystems. We will quantify the distribution of microbial activity in serpentinite rock cores spanning geochemical and mineralogical gradients. This work will include experimental measurements of the rates of tritium incorporation into biomass to identify “hot spots” of activity, rates of deuterium incorporation into lipids to quantify turnover times, mineralogical characterization to recognize where and why “hot spots” exist, and rates of C1 compound assimilation/dissimilation to trace some of the dominant metabolic and biosynthetic processes.  This focus on microbial activity in serpentinite rocks will then be followed by efforts to determine the metabolic potentials and ongoing diversification of organisms via genomic sequencing. We will also characterize the microbe/mineral transformation processes and feedbacks through chemical and biological imaging approaches. 



The Interior Life of Dunes


Michael France, Jani Radebaugh, Ralph Lorenz, Jacques Ravel


Despite extreme temperature swings and paucity of water, desert soils host diverse and active microbial communities that are distinct from other biome soils. Microbes are also found in the top layer of sand dunes, but the habitability of the more benign dune interior has yet to be explored. Understanding the link between the environment and the inhabitants in terrestrial dunes is critical for evaluating the habitability potential of dunes elsewhere in the solar system, especially Mars and Titan, where surface conditions are even more extreme than on Earth. We are conducting in situ investigations at terrestrial dunes to concurrently quantify physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. Comparing these data will provide fundamental new insight into processes and conditions that create and maintain habitable environments, thereby informing the search for such environments beyond Earth. 



Europan Molecular Indicators of Life Investigation (EMILI)


Peter Willis, Tony Ricco, Andrej Grubisic, Jennifer Stern, Fernanda Mora, Jessica Creamer, Richard Quinn, Ryan Danell, Kris Zacny, Cyril Szopa


EMILI is a project to develop and demonstrate a prototype and technologies for the Organic Composition Analyzer (OCA) as specified for the Europa Lander mission concept. EMILI combines both derivatization gas chromatography (GC) and capillary electrophoresis/laser induced fluorescence (CE/LIF) separation front ends interfaced to a common ion trap mass spectrometer (ITMS) to provide comprehensive detection and structural characterization of potential molecular biosignatures in cryogenic fines collected by the Lander from the surface of Europa. Funding is provided by the Instrument Concepts for Europa Exploration 2 (ICEE-2) program.