USC researchers receive NASA funding
Posted September 9, 2012 at 6:09 pm in News
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration Astrobiology Institute announced last week that it will fund a center at USC for the first time.
During the next five years, a team of eight researchers will look at life in the Earth‚Äôs subsurface, micro-organisms that live in the ground, so that NASA might eventually use this project‚Äôs procedures on other planets and moons to determine if there is life outside Earth.
Jan Amend, a professor of earth and biological sciences, will lead the team of eight, including researchers from USC, CalTech, the Desert Research Institute and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Amend said the idea for researching life in the subsurface partially stems from other research going on at another USC center, the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations, funded by the National Science Foundation, which looks at life underneath the ocean floor. Also C-DEBI‚Äôs associate director, Amend said that researchers are just starting to understand subsurface life.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs unlikely that we‚Äôll find bunny rabbits running across the surface of Mars, or even bacteria or microbial life,‚ÄĚ Amend said. ‚ÄúAny life we would find would be in subsurface, but the subsurface is incredibly difficult to work in.‚ÄĚ
Research into subsurface life is relatively new ‚ÄĒ it started in the ‚Äô90s. Amend said learning about these micro-organisms, which are incredibly slow-moving and get their energy from non-solar sources like volcanic heat, can be difficult because they move and metabolize much more slowly than life on Earth‚Äôs surface.
‚ÄúOrganisms have the ability to grow at conditions that are much more extreme than we previously believed,‚ÄĚ Amend said. ‚ÄúThey can exist in places with a very low pH or a very high pH, places that have extremely high temperatures or low temperatures or even places with very high pressure.‚ÄĚ
This versatility means that the kinds of life found in Earth‚Äôs subsurface are more likely to exist on other planets than the kinds of life found on Earth‚Äôs surface.
The research project intends to identify subsurface organisms, learn about how they get and use energy and determine their effects on the environment. In the long run, this will also help NASA figure out ways to measure subsurface life.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre not planning on going into Earth and then immediately translating what we find to space missions,‚ÄĚ Amend said. ‚ÄúWhatever we do find in the next five years may help us develop a Mars mission or find the best way to look at the subsurface of other planets.‚ÄĚ
The tests will be done at several diverse sites around the western United States and one in the mid-Atlantic ridge. Several of the sites will be former boreholes or mines, but each site‚Äôs tested areas will have a very different temperature range, acidity, chemical composition and pressure. The rock, sediments and water samples will help the team paint a picture of life far underneath the ground.
The research project will also include an interactive media component from Holly Willis, the Institute for Multimedia Literacy‚Äôs director of academic programs. Willis will create a game aimed at middle schoolers, in which players, as micro-organisms, must make decisions about where to go, what to eat and how to survive in a harsh environment. The eight-person science team will provide realistic constraints, such as composition of rocks and water, temperature, radiation and pressure.
Amend said he and Kenneth Nealson, a professor of biological and earth sciences and director of the Wrigley Institute, spent long hours concocting the idea for the project over cups of coffee in LiteraTea last year.
After submitting the 179-page proposal in February, Amend said he assumed he wouldn‚Äôt get funded because so few projects do.
USC was one of five institutions to receive a five-year grant from the NAI. Of those five institutions, three were current centers renewing their grants. Thirty-seven of the proposals were for new projects.
‚ÄúThe odds are against you in a big way,‚ÄĚ Amend said. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre incredible teams that are proposing projects … You‚Äôre competing against really powerful teams from schools with big names and big research departments.‚ÄĚ
USC‚Äôs center is set to open Jan. 1 and to receive between $6 and $7 million from NASA, as well as some funding from USC. The NAI teams tend to have around 10 or 12 researchers and average an $8 million budget.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a great opportunity for students and postdocs to get into a pretty exciting field,‚ÄĚ Amend said. ‚ÄúWhen these NASA centers are formed, they bring a lot of attention to exciting research. This is going to be great for USC.‚ÄĚ