NASA Announces New Collaboration Probing How Life Evolved From Single-Cells On Earth
To find life on other planets, scientists have to know what they’re looking for. To know what they’re looking for, they have to unravel the mystery of how life originated and evolved in the first place. For answers, NASA is delving into Earth’s ancient past.
A worldwide network of astrobiologists, scientists who study the origins and evolution of life in the universe, will be brought together to research how life evolved on the early Earth from single-celled organisms, like bacteria, to complex organisms.
NASA unveiled their plans for the new “research coordination network” on May 16 at the 2022 Astrobiology Science Conference held by the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. The work produced from the collaboration, entitled “LIFE: Early Cells to Multicellularity,” will be used toward understanding how to search for life on other planets.
“This is the only planet known to harbor life,” said Betül Kaçar, an assistant professor in the department of bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. “If we cannot understand it here, how can we find it elsewhere?”
Kaçar will lead LIFE along with Frank Rosenzweig at Georgia Tech, Ariel Anbar at Arizona State University, and Mary Droser at the University of California, Riverside. The purpose of a research coordination network, said Anbar, is to bring together people in the wider international science community to participate in new research.
“What we will do will really be shaped by what the community wants to do,” said Anbar. “It’s an opportunity for folks to be able to develop new research ideas that they wouldn’t have had otherwise.”
Anbar’s own research interests are on the evolution of inorganic chemistry of life, or the metals and elements used by life. “We want to try to imagine, start to predict, how life on alien worlds might evolve,” said Anbar. The chemical elements will be different on other planets since the abundances will be different. So the researchers want to know, “How will that affect the evolution of life on such worlds?”
Droser, a distinguished professor in geology, is looking forward to working with biologists to try and investigate biological processes under the constraints of the geological time periods that gave rise to them. “Big questions require a lot of perspectives,” said Droser. “We’re bringing paleontology, biology, geology, chemistry to the table to look at these issues.”
LIFE joins four other research coordination networks currently in operation under NASA’s Astrobiology Program. Researchers in the other coordination networks are currently investigating scientific questions pertaining to ocean worlds, planets with the potential to harbor life, prebiotic chemistry, and detecting signatures of life.
The coming decades will mark an increasingly dedicated search for habitable planets. The recently launched James Webb Space Telescope will be able to look for the chemicals that make up life in the atmospheres of planets that orbit in other star systems. A six-meter infrared optical and ultraviolet light telescope is on the top of the recommended projects for astronomers. Aimed for launch in the 2040s, the telescope would look for signs of life in faraway atmospheres in even more detail.
Kaçar hopes LIFE inspires early career researchers and students studying science to join in on the worldwide effort to understand life’s evolution.
“There’s a place for everybody here,” she said. “As long as you’re fascinated by life, there are many different ways to chase these questions and we want everyone to be excited and join us in this effort.”