Annual Reports

Detailed Annual Reports are available below on the NASA Astrobiology Institute web site. The reports discuss in detail the progress and results on specific research and Education and Public Outreach (EPO) projects, including activities, publications, personnel, and field locations. Our prior grant was funded under NASA CAN (Cooperative Agreement Notice) cycle 4, and our current grant is funded under cycle 6 (CAN-6).


Previous Grant (2008-2012; CAN-4)

Year 1 (CAN-4)

Federal budgetary limits in 2007 funded WARC at 27% of the requested amount in its first year, and as a result, the team focused on Investigations 2 and 3, which focus on the signatures and environments of life. In Year 1, we focused on several components of Investigation 2, including studies of nano-structures of minerals, biological production of carbonates, microbial pyrite oxidation, and iron isotope fractionations in biologic and abiologic systems. In addition, several components of Investigation 3 were pursued, including field-based studies of pyrite oxidation, a modern site of bacterial iron reduction that is an analog to Precambrian banded iron formation genesis, and development of methods for in situ isotopic analysis of O, Si, Li, and Fe by ion microprobe. In Year 1, WARC membership included 12 co-investigators, three staff, eight post-docs, six graduate students, two undergraduate students, and 31 collaborators at other institutions.

CAN-4_Year-1_Fig_Rio_Tinto

Photos of end-member water compositions from Rio Tinto, where microbial pyrite oxidation is oxidizing sulfide and ferrous Fe in pyrite to sulfate and ferric iron, and hence may be a terrestrial analog to early processes on Mars. The red water is sulfate and ferric-Fe rich, and is shown in the main photo. The green water is shown as the bottle in the inset photo, and this water is relatively reduced and ferrous-Fe rich. Research at Rio Tinto comprised on of seven research projects pursued by WARC in Year 1 of the previous grant.

The full Annual Report for Year 1 (CAN-4) can be found here.

top of page


Year 2 (CAN-4)

In Year 2, funding levels rose to nearly full levels, and the team expanded greatly. In Year 2, WARC pursued 14 research projects and three Education and Public Outreach (EPO) projects, which involved 12 primary investigators, nine research scientists and staff, 10 post-docs, 10 graduate students, and 27 collaborators at other institutions. Research efforts in Year 2 were broadly grouped into three components: 1) organic compounds, and their planetary inventories, preservation, and interactions with minerals; 2) chemical and isotopic biosignatures in modern and ancient environments; and 3) new frontiers in analytical methods, applied in situ on other planetary bodies or used for analysis of materials of the early Earth or those returned from missions. EPO activities involved a wide range of public venues, from K-12 school activities to a baseball game.

CAN-4_Year-2_Fig_SIMS

Important advances were made in Year 2 in development of in situ isotopic analysis methods via ion microprobe, an approach that will be essential for samples returned from Mars. This was one of 14 projects pursued by WARC in Year 2 of the previous grant. A major discovery was the effect of sample orientation for some minerals, and surface topography in general, on instrumental accuracy. Mineral grains with less than 2 microns of relief (lower photo) produce high precision and accuracy, whereas grains with 30-40 micron relief produce imprecise and inaccurate results.

The full Annual Report for Year 2 (CAN-4) can be found here.

top of page


Year 3 (CAN-4)

In Year 3, WARC expanded its research portfolio beyond what was originally proposed, to encompass all seven goals of the Astrobiology Roadmap. Nineteen research projects were pursued, as well as five Education and Public Outreach (EPO) projects, all aligned with the primary focus of the team on the signatures and environments of life. In Year 3, after a major recruiting effort in Years 1 and 2, team membership grew to 54 investigators, staff, post-docs, students, and collaborators.

CAN-4_Year-3_Fig_Bugs

As one of 19 projects, one focused the interaction between cells (large) and alumina (small black spheres), comparing cells that produce extra-cellular polymeric substances (EPS) on left and those that do not (on right). The exclusion of alumina particles by cells that produce EPS (left) provides support for the hypothesis that EPS evolved as a mechanism for protection from mineral toxicity, and thus bears on models for the origin of life.

The full Annual Report for Year 3 (CAN-4) can be found here.

top of page


Year 4 (CAN-4)

The WARC Team continued to expand its research portfolio along its primary themes of the signatures and environments of life. Twenty-six research projects were pursued in Year 4, including 15 continuing projects and 11 new initiatives. Research efforts in Year 3 may be broadly grouped into five components: 1) organic compounds, including their preservation and interactions with minerals; 2) chemical and mineralogical biosignatures; 3) isotopic biosignatures; 4) new frontiers in analytical methods; and 5) Mars-related studies. EPO efforts in Year 4 also expanded, and ten major outreach projects and programs were run through NASA-JPL and the University of Wisconsin.

CAN-4_Year-4_O-OREOS

In March of 2009, the Organic experiment integrated into the European multi-user facility EXPOSE-R, containing experiments dedicated to Astrobiology, was mounted through Extra Vehicular Activity (EVA) externally on the International Space Station (ISS). EXPOSE-R was retrieved by EVA in January 2011, and the experiment package is shown here. The yellow box depicts the Organic experiment. The fluorescent color of PAH and fullerenes witnesses that degradation has not destroyed the entire sample. This project is one of 26 pursued by the WARC team in Year 4 of the previous grant.

The full Annual Report for Year 4 (CAN-4) can be found here.

top of page


Year 5 (CAN-4)

In Year 5, the team completed its fundamental research plan under CAN-4 on the signatures and environments of life, but also significantly expanded its research and Education and Public Outreach (EPO) efforts into new directions. Twenty-two research projects were pursued in Year 5, ten of which extended into areas beyond what was originally envisioned in our proposal. EPO efforts in Year 5 also expanded, and thirteen projects and programs were run through NASA-JPL and the University of Wisconsin. WARC research pursued five themes, similar to what was described for Year 4 activities – 1) the inventories of organics in the terrestrial planets, evolution of organics, the survivability of organics on the planets, and development of early cell membranes; 2) experimental studies of biosignatures and paleoenvironmental indicators; 3) application our knowledge of isotopic biosignatures gained from our experimental program to the ancient Earth; 4) Mars analog environments; and 5) developing new technologies for astrobiology, beyond what we originally proposed, including new work on in situ laser ablation analysis both in Earth-based labs and planned rover-based instruments, as well as geochronological studies.

CJ2_0447

The 3.46 Ga Marble Bar Chert (MBC) from the Pilbara craton, Western Australia, was the focus of one (of 22) research projects the WARC team pursued in the last year of CAN-4. Through a novel combination of stable Fe isotopes and U-Th-Pb geochronology, the team determined that oxidation of iron (red portions of the rocks in photo) occurred under anoxic conditions, less than 0.0003% of modern photic zone levels, suggesting the mechanism of oxidation was anoxygenic Fe(II) phototrophy.

The full Annual Report for Year 5 (CAN-4) can be found here.

top of page


Current Grant (2013-2017; CAN-6)

Year 1 (CAN-6)

Our activities in Year 1 of our current grant (CAN-6) were focused on five themes, all of which broadly fall within the team’s efforts in pushing new approaches to “life detection”: 1) analog settings and the biomolecules of life (6 projects); 2) experimental studies of paleoenvironmental and biological proxies (5 projects); 3) Hadean, Archean, and Proterozoic environments and biosphere (5 projects); 4) building the Astrobiology infrastructure (2 projects); and 5) Education and public outreach (6 projects). Building on our earlier recruitment efforts under our previous grant (CAN-4), team membership totaled 71 investigators, staff, post-docs, students, and collaborators.

CAN-6_Year-1_Turee_Creek_Bugs

Comparison of microbes of modern sulfuretums off the west coast of Chile (a) with virtually identical fossil microbes permineralized in ancient sulfuretums of the ~2300-Ma-old Kazput Formation (Turee Creek Group; b) and ~1800-Ma-old Duck Creek Formation (c) of Western Australia. Preservation of the fossil biotas in quiescent relatively cold deep-sea mud and the presence of the same biota in the same setting today confirms the “negative,” null hypothesis required of Darwinian evolution — if there is no change in the physical-biological environment of a well adapted ecosystem there will be no evolution of the form, function or metabolic requirements of its biotic components. This project was one of 18 research projects pursued by the WARC team in Year 1 of the current grant.

The full Annual Report for Year 1 (CAN-6) can be found here.

top of page


Year 2 (CAN-6)

Our research activities in Year 2 of CAN-6 were focused on four themes, all of which broadly fall within the team’s efforts in pushing new approaches to habitability, life detection, and signatures of life: 1) Analog settings and the biomolecules of life (6 projects); 2) Experimental studies of paleoenvironmental and biological proxies (7 projects); 3) Hadean, Archean, and Proterozoic environments and biosphere (6 projects); and 4) Building the Astrobiology infrastructure (2 projects). We had significant NASA mission involvement through the ESPOSE-R2 and OREOCube programs. In Year 2 we significantly expanded our research portfolio from 16 projects in Year 1 to 21 projects in Year 2, as student, post-doc, and staff hiring efforts were completed.

Did microbes make these minerals? In one of 21 research projects pursued in Year 2, Mg incorporation into carbonates was determined to require biological ligands, raising the possibility that Mg-bearing carbonates, by themselves, are a signature for life. Image details: SEM images of synthetic carbonates. (a) SEM image of synthetic rhombohedral calcite seeds. (b) SEM image of high-Mg calcite clusters (~12 mol% MgCO3) synthesized in control solutions containing synthetic seeds. (c) SEM image of disordered Mg-rich dolomite (~57 mol% MgCO3) synthesized in experimental solutions containing non-metabolizing H. saccharolyticum biomass and synthetic seeds. Disordered dolomite overgrew synthetic seeds, and the rhombohedral shape was overall preserved. (d) A close up of the image in c shows that disordered dolomite occurred as extremely small nano-crystals.

Did microbes make these minerals? In one of 21 research projects pursued in Year 2, Mg incorporation into carbonates was determined to require biological ligands, raising the possibility that Mg-bearing carbonates, by themselves, are a signature for life. Image details: SEM images of synthetic carbonates. (a) SEM image of synthetic rhombohedral calcite seeds. (b) SEM image of high-Mg calcite clusters (~12 mol% MgCO3) synthesized in control solutions containing synthetic seeds. (c) SEM image of disordered Mg-rich dolomite (~57 mol% MgCO3) synthesized in experimental solutions containing non-metabolizing H. saccharolyticum biomass and synthetic seeds. Disordered dolomite overgrew synthetic seeds, and the rhombohedral shape was overall preserved. (d) A close up of the image in c shows that disordered dolomite occurred as extremely small nano-crystals.

The full Annual Report for Year 2 (CAN-6) can be found here.

top of page


Year 3 (CAN-6)

Our research activities in Year 3 of CAN-6 involved 19 projects that fell under four themes: 1) Biomolecules of Life and Microbial Processes in Analog Settings, 2) Experimental Studies of Paleoenvironmental and Biological Proxies, 3) Archean and Proterozoic Environments and Biosphere, and 4) Developing new Astrobiology Technologies. Our PI roster expanded to 15, with the addition of Richard Quinn from SETI/NASA-Ames. Nine research staff, five post-docs, and nine graduate students pursued research in Year 3.

In one of the projects pursued in Year 3, detrital shocked zircons were studied from the Vredefort Dome, South Africa. An electron backscatter diffraction image of a polished shocked zircon, where the smooth background color scheme shows angular variations in crystal orientation that record damage caused by impact (an undamaged crystal would be a single color). The thin red bands are microtwins (labelled t1-t4), which occur in four different orientations (see arrows) and are a unique hallmark of meteorite impact. Four U-Pb age determinations made on this highly shocked grain yielded the age of rocks exposed at the Vredefort impact structure, not the impact age (image credit: Aaron J. Cavosie). See full story in Cavosie et al., 2015 Geology.

The full Annual Report for Year 3 (CAN-6) can be found here.

top of page


Year 4 (CAN-6)

The research portfolio for 2016 included 17 projects that spanned the team’s three research themes on life detection, biosignature development, and the ancient terrestrial rock record. This research effort involved 14 lead investigators from eight institutions, and major collaborations with seven other current and former NAI teams, as well as astrobiologists in the U.S., Europe, Israel, Japan, China, Australia, and South Africa. Mission involvement included EXPOSE-2 and Mars Science Lab. The results of these efforts were published in 31 peer-reviewed publications, and comprised the theses of three graduate degrees that were awarded in astrobiology from UW-Madison.

Closeup of 3.2 Ga barite (barium sulfate) from “Barite Valley”, South Africa. Bladed barite in lower part of image is of hydrothermal origin but layered fine-grained barite in upper part of image is of seawater origin. Study of strontium isotopes in these samples showed extensive continental weathering at 3.2 Ga.

The full Annual Report for Year 4 (CAN-6), for the team, can be found here.

The full Annual Report for Year 4 (CAN-6), for all of NAI, can be found here.

top of page

 


Year 5 (CAN-6)

The research portfolio in the last year (Year 5 of CAN-6) included 26 projects that spanned the team’s three research themes on life detection, biosignature development, and the ancient terrestrial rock record. This research effort involved 14 lead investigators from eight institutions, and major collaborations with seven other current and former NAI Teams, as well as astrobiologists in the U.S., Europe, Israel, Japan, China, New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. The results of these efforts were published in 39 peer-reviewed publications in Year 5. 2017 concludes the team’s NAI membership, which included CAN-4 and CAN-6. In toto, the team’s decade of research and EPO activities involved 17 co-investigators at nine institutions, trained 29 post-doctoral fellows and 32 graduate students, and published 223 papers in the peer-reviewed literature.

Cryo‐SEM image demonstrating the intimate cell‐mineral association of an aerobic pyrite‐oxidizing enrichment culture after ca. 45 days of growth. Cells are shown in false orange color. Micron‐size pyrite particles are aggregates of numerous small framboidal crystallites. Image featured on the cover of Geobiology, September 2017 issue (Percak-Dennett et al., 2017). Image credit: Deborah Powell, University of Delaware Bioimaging Center.

The full Annual Report for Year 5 (CAN-6), for the team, can be found here.

top of page