Director: Bruce Watson, Institute Professor of Science, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Associate Director: Karyn Rogers, Departments of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Biological Sciences
Program Home Page: http://www.origins.rpi.edu
The New York Center for Astrobiology is devoted to investigating the origins of life on Earth and the conditions that lead to formation of habitable planets in our own and other solar systems. Based within the School of Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the Center is a partnership between Rensselaer, Syracuse University, and several other campuses. Researchers include faculty, postdoctorals, graduate students and undergraduates at Rensselaer and at partner campuses. The Center promotes undergraduate education, including a minor in Astrobiology, and hosts a weekly Origin of Life seminar. Areas of research are summarized below.
Research Innovations and Initiatives
The Environments of Early Earth and Prebiotic Chemistry
Understanding the physical and chemical state of the Earth’s surface and near surface, including the earliest atmosphere and oceans, is critical to any theory of the origin of life on Earth. Conditions in the first few hundred million years of Earth’s history are explored by reading the “chemical memories” carried by zircons and other ancient crystals that survive from this epoch, with the goal of establishing the timescale on which the Earth became suitable as a host for complex organic molecules and life itself. One of the key processes leading up to the emergence of life is the abiotic synthesis of organic molecules that can carry out the most basic of life’s functions, specifically information storage and transfer and the catalytic activity that eventually leads to biological functions. One scenario for the emergence of life has RNA fill both roles, making the abiotic synthesis of RNA polymers a key process to the emergence of life. Our research has shown that RNA chains can be formed in the laboratory from activated RNA monomers using montmorillonite clay as a catalyst, a scenario that mimics shallow surface pools on the early Earth. More recently, experiments that mimic subsurface environments suggest that RNA polymerization is plausible for a variety of early Earth environments that vary in physical, chemical, and mineralogical parameters. Future research will investigate reactions of these RNA polymers to generate more complicated biomolecules that may have been essential to the first life.
Vistas of Early Mars
NASA is planning in the next decade an unprecedented development in Mars exploration: a mission to return samples from the Martian surface, gathered at locations that appear most promising as environments for present or past life. To better prepare for the selection and detailed analysis of such samples, experiments are conducted to assess the ability of various minerals known to be present on Mars to retain evidence of past habitable environments (e.g. water) and life itself through preservation of isotopic biosignatures. Furthermore, the impact of geochemical, mineralogical, and physicochemical gradients on the habitability of Martian environments is being explored in modern terrestrial analog systems. Our current research uses observations of the microbial communities in terrestrial volcanic environments to understand constraints on habitability on Mars and build metabolic ecosystem models that can applied to similar modern and ancient Martian environments.
The Origins of Preplanetary Matter
This research seeks to understand the cosmic origins of molecules essential to life, including water, hydrocarbons, alcohols, and other precursors of amino acids. Data from telescopes on the Earth and in space are used to investigate the nature and origin of interstellar dust and the chemical and physical processes that link interstellar matter to the origins of new solar systems. Models that describe the physical and chemical processes that govern the evolution of these molecules are being developed and tested, linking interstellar chemistry to primitive bodies (comets and asteroids) in our solar system that may have delivered volatiles and organic molecules to the early Earth and Mars. The goal is to test the hypothesis that the molecules necessary for life are common ingredients of new solar systems and that delivery of these ingredients to planetary surfaces is an essential step toward the origins of life.
The Bombardment History of the Earth-Moon System
Interplanetary material is not only a source of raw materials for the origin of planetary life but also a potential threat in the form of impacts by large cometary and asteroidal bodies that may have sterilized the Earth during the first few hundred million years of its history. Because the impact record on Earth is destroyed over time by weathering, volcanism, and tectonic movement of the crust, the nearby Moon is studied as a valuable proxy: much of its ancient surface remains virtually undisturbed. The chemical composition and chronology of glasses from the Moon that were produced by the extreme heat and pressure of impacts are being studied. Results will enable the bombardment history of the Moon (and hence the Earth) to be determined.
Baldwin, S.—Michael G. and Susan T. Thonis Professor, Department of Earth Sciences, Syracuse University
Fox, P.—Professor, Tetherless World Constellation Chair
McGown, L.—William Weightman Walker Professor, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology
Rogers, K.—Assistant Professor, Departments of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Biological Sciences
Schaller, M.—Assistant Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences
Trail, D.—Assistant Professor, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Rochester
Watson, B.—Institute Professor of Science, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences