NASA awards CU-Boulder-led team $7 million

Study of ‘rock-powered life’ to consider origins, evolution in universe
By Staff

NASA awards CU-Boulder-led team $7 million to study origins, evolution of life in universe
NASA has awarded a team led by the University of Colorado Boulder more than $7 million to study aspects of the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

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 as well as on other planets like Mars, said Templeton, principal investigator on the effort.

Scientists believe that habitable or potentially inhabited environments may exist in the subsurface of Mars as well as the interiors of Europa and Ganymede -- two of the moons of Jupiter -- and Triton, a moon of Neptune, said CU-Boulder Research Associate Thomas McCollom of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, a co-investigator on the effort.  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, he said.

“I’m pleasantly surprised that we were selected, in part because it was such a tough competition,” said McCollom, one of four CU-Boulder co-investigators on the grant. “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 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 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 awarded seven grants totaling almost $50 million to seven winning research teams that will explore the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe. The other six victorious 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, or SETI, in Mountain View, California; the University of California, Riverside, and the University of Montana in Missoula.

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