USC team to investigate life beyond Earth
A team of researchers led by USC Professor Jan Amend has been selected to join the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI), an organization established in 1998 to develop the field of astrobiology, the study of the origins and evolution of life in the universe.
As part of the institute, the team will receive a five-year grant of approximately $6 million to investigate microorganisms that live in Earth’s subsurface biosphere, the habitable area below the planet’s surface.
The team will be making inroads into a relatively new area of research, as little is known about the subsurface biosphere.
“We don’t know what organisms are living in the subsurface, how far down the biosphere extends or how active the community is that’s down there,” said Amend, professor of earth sciences and biological sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “At this point our research is very exploratory.”
Research conducted by the team could become a template for collecting evidence of life or past life on extraterrestrial planetary bodies, such as Mars.
The USC Dornsife-led team will target a variety of subsurface environments in its search for microorganisms that encompass different thermal regimes, rock types, water chemistry and flow rates.
The locations will include predominantly continental sites in mines and boreholes throughout the United States, as well as a marine system in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean called North Pond.
The team will focus on the subsurface biosphere because on a planet such as Mars, where surface conditions are quite harsh, the subsurface is more likely than the surface to contain evidence of life, Amend explained.
“Basically, we will be practicing looking for subsurface life on Earth before we imagine doing it on Mars or another planetary body,” Amend said.
The researchers will also experiment with sampling techniques that take place at the site. If an expedition is going to Mars or another planetary body, it is costly to send samples back to Earth for analysis, Amend said.
“If you can send over a rover to do investigations in situ [in place] — do analyses there and send back data rather than samples — it’s significantly cheaper,” he said.
The USC interdisciplinary research team includes Amend, who will serve as principal investigator; Kenneth Nealson, holder of the Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and professor of earth sciences and biological sciences; Katrina Edwards, professor of earth sciences, biological sciences and environmental studies, and director of the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI); Moh El-Naggar, assistant professor of physics; Holly Willis, director of academic programs at the USC Institute for Multimedia Literacy; Victoria Orphan, professor of geobiology at California Institute of Technology; Rohit Bhartia, a scientist at Jet Propulsion Laboratory; Duane Moser, a microbial and molecular ecologist at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas; and Yuri Gorby, professor of geomicrobiology at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, formerly of USC Dornsife.
Of the five research teams selected, three were renewed from previous funding cycles, making the USC Dornsife team one of two new groups selected to join the NAI this year.
The team will receive additional funding from USC. Its research will complement other investigations taking place at the university conducted through the C-DEBI, which is housed at USC Dornsife.