Astrobiology is a highly integrative discipline that seeks to understand the origin and evolution of life in the universe, and brings together researchers across the entire range of the sciences. Research in astrobiology by the ICP-MS lab focuses, not surprisingly, on stable and radiogenic isotope variations as a tracer of evolution of paleoenvironments and the biosphere. Much of our work in astrobiology falls under the larger research program of the Wisconsin Astrobiology Research Consortium, which is part of the NASA Astrobiology Institute.
Our astrobiology research has three main components:
- Early Earth and their Analogs
- Although it seems likely life exists elsewhere in the universe, the fact remains the Earth provides the only known record of the original and evolution of life. Our work on the early Earth and their analogs primarily focuses on the Archean rock record, as well as work on modern hot spring systems at Yellowstone.
- Experimental Systems
- We can analyze all the rocks we want for stable isotope compositions, but without understanding of the isotopic fractionation factors and isotopic exchange kinetics, it is essentially impossible to interpret data from natural systems. So, in parallel with our rock-based studies has been a very large experimental program, primarily focused on stable isotopes of Mg, Si, and Fe, as well as some additional new avenues.
- A major focus of NASA in looking for life elsewhere in the Solar System, as well as the habitability of the early Solar System, has been Mars. Our work has used Mars meteorites to gain new insights into the habitability of early Mars, as well as other groups of meteorites and lunar samples to better understand planetary evolution.