Imagine studying life on another planet for a living! Now there is a university program in exobiology, training students to look for new life and new civilizations.
by Vince Stricherz
The University of Washington is poised to become the first institution anywhere to launch a doctoral program specifically geared to train scientists to search for life on celestial bodies such as Mars or Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter.
The astrobiology program will be financed by a 5-year, $2 million grant announced today by the National Science Foundation Grant and supplemented by $500,000 from the university.
The highly interdisciplinary curriculum will involve 11 UW degree programs – Oceanography, Astronomy, Aeronautics & Astronautics, Genetics, Chemistry, Biochemistry, Microbiology, Atmospheric Sciences, Geophysics, Geological Sciences and History. Graduates can receive degrees in any of those areas, with an endorsement noting an emphasis in astrobiology.
The School of Oceanography will provide dedicated laboratory space for students to study organisms that live in extreme conditions. Oceanography professors John Delaney and Jody Deming and associate professor John Baross have closely studied organisms living in high-temperature, high-pressure conditions in ocean environments where little light penetrates. Baross is trying to relate the conditions in which those organisms live now to conditions when life began on Earth 3.5 billion years ago.
Two entities outside the university also are participating. The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland will offer students a chance to study microbial life in the subterranean basalt formations in Eastern Washington. ZymoGenetics Inc. of Seattle, a subsidiary of Novo Nordisk A/S of Denmark that is interested in enzymes from unusual bacteria, is offering summer internships so students can pursue that work.
“We recognize that there is a good possibility that life exists in the solar system outside Earth, but if that life does exist it would be microbial, not the higher forms,” said James Staley, a UW microbiology professor who is the principal investigator for astrobiology.
Likely sites for such life are Mars, where there is evidence of water, or the ice-clad moon Europa. The key to finding life in such forbidding environments is understanding how life exists in extreme conditions on Earth – such as hot springs in Yellowstone National Park, undersea vents where no sunlight penetrates and temperatures reach several hundred degrees, pools of brine within polar sea ice, and volcanic basalt formations.
“We have microbial systems on Earth that are good models for those on Mars or Europa, and those systems are poorly studied,” Staley said. He added that such life forms were the precursor to advanced life on Earth, so their presence on other planets could signal the eventual evolution of advanced life there, as well.
The idea for an astrobiology program grew out of a special seminar, Planets and Life, offered at the university in 1996 shortly after the discovery of planets orbiting nearby stars and an announcement that NASA scientists possibly had found microbial fossils inside a Martian rock. That claim since has drawn much scientific skepticism, but the success of the seminar – it was attended by 30 graduate students and 20 post-doctoral researchers and faculty, and it sparked much campus excitement – laid a foundation for a program in astrobiology. Woodruff Sullivan, a UW astronomy professor and adjunct history professor, spearheaded the seminar and is an astrobiology co-investigator. He expects about a dozen students when the program begins in the fall quarter of 1999.
But there is much to be done before then. Five new courses must be designed to complement existing courses that will be included in the curriculum, Sullivan said. Departments involved will have to devise different ways of testing and grading students involved in astrobiology, since an astrobiology student pursuing a degree in astronomy, for instance, will have significantly different course demands than other astronomy students. One-third of astrobiology course work will be in areas not closely related to the student’s home department, so an astronomy astrobiology student might spend a great deal of time studying microbiology. Students also must take part in an annual workshop, three days of work in the field. It could be looking for microbes at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Sullivan said, or using an electron microscope to study comet dust. “Everyone will have to get their hands dirty.”
Conway Leovy, a UW atmospheric sciences professor and also a co-investigator, expects the program to be an education for faculty members as well as students. But he said the students will be particularly challenged as they blaze a new path, and it will be some time before the first doctoral degrees in astrobiology are awarded.
“Astrobiology students will have to learn rigorously as well as more broadly than most other science graduate students,” Leovy said. “We probably can’t expect to see the fruits of our efforts in the form of many Ph. D. graduates sooner than five years from now.” Richard Gammon, who is a UW chemistry and oceanography professor and also is an adjunct professor of atmospheric sciences, helped write a financing proposal for the astrobiology degree program. He believes the approach of breaching traditional barriers between different science disciplines was a key to National Science Foundation support. “All of these efforts are to meet the needs of students of the future, who are going to need training across fields,” Gammon said.
The UW is one of 17 universities sharing in $40.5 million in National Science Foundation graduate education and research training grants. For more information about the NSF program, visit http://www.nsf.gov/igert/ on the World Wide Web.