Montage of our solar system

JPL researchers have been chosen by NASA to be one of four new teams that will be part of the agency's Astrobiology Institute, a national and international research consortium that studies the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life on Earth and in the universe.

After a highly competitive peer-review process, teams from JPL, Michigan State University, East Lansing, the University of Rhode Island, Kingston and the University of Washington in Seattle have been notified of their selection.

Dr. Victoria Meadows will lead the JPL team, which will conduct research on recognizing the biospheres of extrasolar planets. The results of her team's work are expected to directly influence the development of future space missions such as Terrestrial Planet Finder, which will look for habitable planets around other "Suns." Terrestrial Planet Finder is one of the missions of NASA's Origins Program, which seeks to answer the questions: Where did we come from? Are we alone?

"This work will help us determine what the signatures of life on an extrasolar planet will look like, once we have the technology to study them," Meadows said.

JPL has been active in the astrobiology field since 1997 by forming an astrobiology research element, and element lead Dr. Kenneth Nealson was a recipient of the original round of Astrobiology Institute grants in 1998 to study the co- evolution of planets and biospheres.

These new teams of researchers will bring specialized expertise to the institute, allowing its members to more deeply investigate the diversity of life inhabiting extreme environments on Earth, and to develop analytical models to search for habitable planets outside our solar system.

The Michigan State team, led by Dr. Michael Thomashow, will examine low-temperature Earth analogs to possible life on Mars and Europa by analyzing genetic material and proteins of bacteria from Arctic and Antarctic permafrost. Data from the gene-expression analysis will be important for understanding the biology of "hitchhiker" microbes traveling through space on meteorites and other bodies.

The University of Rhode Island team, led by Dr. Steven D'Hondt, will examine the deep biosphere of the Earth and the "extremophile" communities that thrive in this extreme environment. This research will include developing bio- geochemical markers for life for use on future astrobiology missions.

The University of Washington team, led by Dr. Peter Ward, will address a broad series of important areas in astrobiology, ranging from biogeochemistry of the earliest life on Earth to the formation, evolution and potential for life on planets outside our solar system.

With these additions, the Astrobiology Institute now represents a partnership between NASA and 14 major national and three international research institutions to promote, conduct and lead integrated, multidisciplinary astrobiology research and to train a new generation of researchers in the discipline of astrobiology. Founded in 1997, the institute's central offices are located at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

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