Famous Astrobiologist you should know.

Identifying the top three astrobiologists was difficult, as many researchers have made significant contributions to the field. Here are my top three big names who have made significant contributions to the field and are widely recognized for their work:

  1. Carl Sagan was an astronomer, cosmologist, and astrobiologist known for his popular science writing and work on the search for extraterrestrial life. He was the co-author of the book “Intelligent Life in the Universe,” considered a classic in astrobiology.
  2. Lynn Margulis was a microbiologist and evolutionary theorist. She is known for her work on the endosymbiotic theory, which proposes that the eukaryotic cell, the type of cell that makes up most “evolved” life on Earth, evolved through the integration of multiple simpler cells. For example, a tiny energy-harvesting bacteria could have entered another bacteria for protection while giving its host bacteria the ability to harness energy. Over time, this energy-harvesting bacteria became the organalle, mitocondria.
  3. Christopher McKay is an astrobiologist who has significantly contributed to our understanding of the potential for life on other planets. He has researched Mars’s habitability and has played a leading role in the search for microbial life on the planet.

How does Astrobiology Contribute to Humanity

Why should you care about Astrobiology?

Astrobiology has the potential to contribute to humanity in several ways. Some of how astrobiology may contribute to society include:

  1. Advancing our understanding of the origins and evolution of life: Astrobiology research helps deepen our understanding of the origins and evolution of life on Earth and the conditions necessary for this to occur. This knowledge can help us to better understand the processes that have shaped the evolution of life on our planet. It may also provide insights into the potential for the emergence of life elsewhere in the universe.
  2. Searching for life beyond Earth: Astrobiology research involves the search for signs of life on other planets and moons within our own solar system and beyond. The discovery of extraterrestrial life, whether microbial or more complex, could have significant implications for our understanding of the universe and our place within it.
  3. Developing new technologies: The search for life beyond Earth often requires the development of new technologies and techniques, such as advanced telescopes and spacecraft. These technologies can also have applications beyond astrobiology, potentially leading to new innovations and developments in other fields.
  4. Inspiring the public: Astrobiology research has the potential to inspire and engage the public, particularly younger generations, in science and exploration. The search for life beyond Earth has long captured the imagination of people around the world, and the potential for the discovery of extraterrestrial life could inspire a new generation of scientists and explorers.

Overall, astrobiology has the potential to contribute to humanity in many ways, from advancing our understanding of the universe and our place within it to inspiring the public and driving technological advancements.

What is Astrobiology?

Astrobiology studies the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe. It is a multidisciplinary field that combines elements of astronomy, biology, chemistry, and other scientific disciplines to understand the conditions under which life arises and evolves and the potential for the existence of life beyond Earth.

Astrobiology research includes searching for habitable, habitable, or habitable life on other planets and moons within our own solar system and beyond, as well as studying the conditions on these bodies that might support life. It also involves investigating the chemical and physical processes that may have led to the emergence of life on Earth and the conditions necessary for this to occur.

Astrobiology also encompasses the study of the potential for the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence or the search for intelligent life beyond Earth. This involves the search for signs of technologically advanced civilizations, such as radio signals or other evidence of their presence.

Overall, astrobiology is a broad and rapidly-growing field that is helping to answer fundamental questions about the nature of life and the possibility of its existence elsewhere in the universe.

Prebiotic Membraneless Structures as a way towards Cellurarity

Originally title: Droplets of these simple molecules may have helped kick-start life on Earth from Carmen Drahl (Sciencenews.org) 

droplets pics

For the origin of life on Earth, ancient puddles or coastlines may have had a major ripple effect.

A new study shows that a simple class of molecules called alpha hydroxy acids forms microdroplets when dried and rewetted, as could have taken place at the edges of water sources. These cell-sized compartments can trap RNA, and can merge and break apart — behavior that could have encouraged inanimate molecules in the primordial soup to give rise to life, researchers report July 22 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Besides giving clues to how life may have gotten started on the planet, the work might have additional applications in both medicine and the search for extraterrestrial life.

Present-day biology relies on cells to concentrate nutrients and protect genetic information, so many scientists think that compartments could have been important for life to begin. But no one knows whether the first microenclosures on Earth were related to modern cells.

“The early Earth was certainly a messy place chemically,” with nonbiological molecules such as alpha hydroxy acids potentially having roles in the emergence of life alongside biomolecules like RNA and their precursors, says biochemist Tony Jia of Tokyo Institute of Technology’s Earth-Life Science Institute.

Jia’s team focused on mixtures of alpha hydroxy acids, some of which are common in skin-care cosmetics. Though not as prominent as their chemical relatives amino acids, alpha hydroxy acids are plausible players in origin-of-life happenings because they frequently show up in meteorites as well as in experiments mimicking early Earth chemistry.

In 2018, a team led by geochemists Kuhan Chandru of the Earth-Life Science Institute and the National University of Malaysia at Bangi and H. James Cleaves, also of the Earth-Life Science Institute, demonstrated that, just though drying, alpha hydroxy acids form repeating chains of molecules called polymers. In the new study, the pair along with Jia and their colleagues found that rewetting the polymers led to the formation of microdroplets about the same diameter as modern red blood cells or cheek cells.

Prior studies have shown that simple molecules can form droplets(SN: 4/15/17, p. 11).  The new work goes further in showing “that possibly prebiotically relevant molecules can form droplets,” says artificial cell expert Dora Tang of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany, who wasn’t involved with the work.

In the lab, the team demonstrated that the droplets could trap and host molecules essential to life as we know it, such as RNA. The researchers also observed that a protein retained its function within the droplets and that fatty acids could assemble around the droplets.

Still, those findings don’t mean the microdroplets were Earth’s first cells or ancestors of them, Chandru cautions. Instead, he suggests that the droplets could have helped reactions along in emerging biochemical systems in the lead-up to the origin of life.

Though the team’s focus is origin-of-life studies, Jia points out that these microdroplets could potentially be engineered to deliver medications. The researchers note in their study that they may apply for a patent related to the work within the next year but have not specified an application.

The new research may also hold an important lesson for the search for extraterrestrial life (SN: 4/30/16, p. 28). “We need to not only focus on detection of modern biomolecules and their precursors, but also other relevant nonbiomolecules” that, like alpha hydroxy acids, might have played supporting roles in the emergence of life, on Earth or elsewhere, Jia says.

 

Click here for the source article

Click here for Original paper

The missing years (2016-2019)

STEM school

 

 

Since 2016, I’ve been busy and didn’t really find the time to blog here. So here is a brief summary of what has happened thus far:

  • Got a couple of papers published:
  • Got appointed at two places:
  • Gave a couple of Science Talks
    • Invited Talk – Faculty of Science and Technology, UKM Bangi, Malaysia (March 2019)- “Mother of all questions- Origins of Life”
    • Invited Talk – University of Duisburg-Essen, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany (October 2018)- “Using non-standard biomolecules to elucidate the Origins of Life”
    • Contributed Talk  – Interdisciplinary Origins of Life (iOOL) meeting 2018 at Institute for Molecular Evolution, Heinrich-Heine-University, Dusseldorf, Germany, (October 2018) – “The possible role of prebiotic scaffold molecules in the Origins of life ”
    • Contributed Talk  – 18th European Astrobiology Network Association (EANA) conference 2018, Berlin, Germany, (September 2018) – “Combinatorial Chemistry and the Origins of Life: Polyesters”
    • Invited Talk – Biotechnology and Biomedicine Center of the Academy of Sciences and Charles University in Vestec (BIOCEV), Vestec, Czech Republic (September 2018)- “Scaffolding the Origins of life”
    • Invited Talk- Research Fellows Conference, University of Chemistry and Technology, Prague, Czech Republic (September 2018) “Introduction and Problems in the Origins of Life”
    • Invited Talk – Institute for Planetary Materials (IPM), Okayama University, Misasa, Japan (June 2017)- “Origins of life and its discontent”
    • Invited Talk – NASA Astrobiology Institute’s Thermodynamic, Disequilibrium and Evolution (TDE) Focus Group meeting, ELSI, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Tokyo, Japan, (October 2016) – “The Abiotic Chemistry of Thiolated Acetate Derivatives and the Origin of Life”
  • And some outreach talks in Malaysia (see the attached poster)
    • Public talk at SMK (High School) Wangsa Melawati “How to Find Aliens Vol 2”, 13th March 2019
    • Public talk at Planetarium Negara “How to Find Aliens”, 25th February 2019. 

I will be updating this blog soon with my own OOL stuff.

 

 

Kensei Kobayashi’s flow-reactor, the SCWFR, part 2

The SCWFR at Kensei Kobayashi's lab at Yokohama National University
The SCWFR at Kensei Kobayashi’s lab at Yokohama National University

Kensei Kobayashi’s group with the help of Takeo Kanaeko (a brilliant man) came up with another design where they named it Super Critical Water Flow Reactor (SCWFR) utilizing an infrared (IR) gold image furnace (Figure above). This enables the fluid in this system to heat up to 400 °C (or any desired temperature) within seconds (without pre-heating). This one specification is important as most autoclave and other flow reactors utilized an electrical heater which takes time to heat up to the desired temperature. This is undesirable as this “pre-heating” is also making the initial chemicals to react (or altered) to lower and rising temperature, which is not very realistic to a real vent. In other case, this is one of the slightly more realistic simulators i have worked to date.

Kobayashi’s ex-student, Nazrul Islam performed the survivability experiment using several amino acids (aspartic acid, threonine, serine, sarcosine, glutamic acid, α-aminobutyric acid, β- alanine, γ-aminobutyric acid, 5-aminovaleric acid and 6- aminohexanoic acid), 10 mM each) by heating them up at four different temperatures (250, 300, 350 and 400°C ) at 25 MPa for 2 min (that’s pretty fast). They showed that amino acids tend to show better recovery when it is hydrolyzed, suggesting some kind of aggregation and/or condensation is happening within the system. Additionally they also showed oligomerization of glycine (100mM) with the same temperature. At 400°C, no oligomerization was found. However, at 200-350°C, diketopiperazine, diglycine, triglycine and tetraglycine were formed. It was suggested that the glycine reactions in a supercritical fluid (300°C to 400°C) are quite different from those in the liquid phase (at 200–350°C). There were many other peaks of unknown compounds in all of the chromatograms of the unhydrolyzed products. Most of those peaks disappeared after acid hydrolysis. This particular findings however remains a mystery.

Another of Kensei’s sudent, Hironari Kurihara, used the SCWFR to test the stability of complex compounds produced from simulated primitive atmosphere (similar to Miller and Urey’s work). He then tested these compounds to assess the stability of some known amino acids. The complex-combined amino acids (from the primitive atmosphere simulation) preserved more amino acids (including amino acid precursors that give amino acids after acid hydrolysis) than free amino acids after heating in simulated SHS environments. In other words, these complex chemicals which could come from atmosphere (or space) could be better preserved if they are come into contact with the hot hydrothermal system which could have existed during the prebiotic-earth setting. This also hints that “clean or perfect” chemicals like amino acids used in many kinds of experiments are not necessarily showing the right picture when comes to chemical evolution on early earth. More on this in the future.

Many critics of hydrothermal vent simulators often argues that, simulators mentioned on this post and previous ones have a rather short flow-rate and short flow-length (showing low residence time, meaning how long the sample stays in the system). Critics usually cite studies that refer to residence time of fluids in axial hydrothermal environments range from years to decades, while those in lower temperature off-axis diffuse flow systems may be on the order of thousands of years. The problem with these studies about residential axial time of fluids is that, they’re are based on models and calculation only, no work has been done so far in regards to real time sampling or measuring the length of vent system (although, there are work in measuring the velocity of fluid emitting from a vent which looks promising for future measuring). Despite this limitation, i believe the future of simulators will be done using computer simulators, where experimental data from physical simulators (like the ones mentioned in this blog) could be used as parameters. The biggest advantage in this, is that, we do experiments on a larger scale which is could make the origin of life more complicated, interesting and not so straightforward, which I believe is a good problem to have in the future.

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Making life in a pot

In the last few posts, i wrote about the basics of submarine hydrothermal vents (SHS), here i will be posting about the simulators that we use in the lab to recreate this environment. This is useful as we can use many kinds of basic chemicals to test how they react when directed to massive heat and pressure similar to SHS. Today’s post will be about the most basic of simulator, we call it the autoclave; I will be also describing some of the experiments done in an autoclave system to date.; which literally a boiling pot.

Autoclave at Kensei Kobayashi lab at Yokohama National University, Japan
Autoclave at Kensei Kobayashi lab at previous university, Yokohama National University, Japan

When the hypothesis that life could have started at SHS was proposed; Miller and Bada was one of the first to come with real experimental simulations. They  argued that biomolecules decompose at high temperature and pressure, thus making SHS an unreliable spot for origins. They carried out the experiment at 250°C and 26 Mpa for about 6 hours, and adjusted the pH to neutral of amino acids, leucine, alanine, serine and aspartic acid. The experiment was conducted in an autoclave; a device conventionally used to sterilize equipment and supplies by subjecting them to high pressure and temperature (figure on the left and below, you can’t miss it!!). They showed that aspartic acid and serine decomposed rapidly, and the half life of leucine was about 15-20 min; and alanine appears to be much stable than the rest. Glycine, which was not part of the starting material, was produced during the course of the experiments. From this experiment, They went on to conclude that SHS is not ideal for origin of life, because amino acid being an monomer to proteins will be destroyed at high heat and pressure.

This finding, however received much criticism, some scientists mentioned that the duo did not control the redox conditions in their simulations, and started at a neutral pH; this is very much unlikely in a real situation hence, their results are not very realistic. Kohara and and his buddies showed that if a reducing condition (adding hydrogen) is introduced to an autoclave (similar to a real SHS), amino acid are better conserved up to 300°C. The stability of amino acids was dependent on the fugacity of hydrogen in the system compared to inert conditions shown by Miller and Bada. This is shown in Kohara and co workers’ work, that hydrolyzed samples exhibits higher recovery compared to the non-hydrolyzed ones.

Schemetic diagram of a simple autoclave
Schemetic diagram of a simple autoclave

Moving on, in 1992, RJC Hennet and friends managed to show that by using some basic chemicals found in the ocean (KCN with NH4CL and HCHO together with pyrite, pyrrhotite and magnetite to be precise) at 150°C, could form a variety of amino acids in an autoclave. Similarly, David Marshall also showed how amino acids and amines could be formed using aqueous NH4HCO3 solutions were reacted with gaseous C2H2, H2, and O2 at 200-275°C for 0.2-2 hours. These experiments seems to be supporting that bio-molecules especially amino acids (so far), could be formed in such conditions which could have existed on early earth.

Now on the cons of autoclave. Despite being robust and proven useful, the autoclaves severely lacks a cooling device. Conventionally, once the heating vessel is removed from the furnace of an autoclave, a fan is usually placed to cool it down for a few hours. This is not exactly how a real SHS will function, one could easily imagine that the hot fluids emitted by the vents will be rapidly cooled down by the near freezing water of the ocean. This limitation made researchers to come with a more dynamic system, which i will write about in the next post.

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Lost City hydrothermal field, an unique hydrothermal vent system

In 2000, a completely new kind of vent system was discovered at mid-Atlantic ocean that differ significantly from black-smokers and never seen before chemical enviroment. They are characterized by carbonate chimneys that rise up to 60 meters (picture below). The system, named Lost City hydrothermal field (LCHF) could also be a spot for origins. They are also located a few kilometers away from the spreading

Typical morphology of active chimney at Lost City showing multiple, delicate pinnacles of young carbonate material. (NOAA website)
Typical morphology of active chimney at Lost City showing multiple, delicate pinnacles of young carbonate material. (NOAA website)

Diagrammatic sketch showing geologic and tectonic relationships at Lost City. Hydrothermal structures are located on a faulted down-dropped block of variably altered and deformed crust composed predominantly of serpentinite; taken from Kelley, D. S, Karson, J. A, Früh-Green, G. L, Yoerger, D. R, Shank, T. M, Butterfield, D. (2005) A serpentinite-hosted ecosystem: the Lost City hydrothermal field. Science, 307(5714), 1428–1434
Diagrammatic sketch showing geologic and tectonic relationships at Lost City. Hydrothermal structures are located on a faulted down-dropped block of variably altered and deformed crust composed predominantly of serpentinite; taken from Kelley, D. S, Karson, J. A, Früh-Green, G. L, Yoerger, D. R, Shank, T. M, Butterfield, D. (2005) A serpentinite-hosted ecosystem: the Lost City hydrothermal field. Science, 307(5714), 1428–1434

zone. They fluids are heated up a ~ 200°C, but they are not in close contact with the magma chamber like a black-smoker. Instead they are fueled by chemical reactions between mantle rocks and seawater. The rocks contain large amounts of olivine (a Mg-Fe silicate) which reacts with seawater at temperatures ~200°C and forms serpentine minerals (hydrous Mg-silicates) and magnetite. This process, referred to as serpentinization makes the system highly alkaline (pH 9–11). An interesting fact is that, serpentinization have been producing geological H2 for as long as there has been water on the Earth. This new system, has yet to get an experimental focus for origin of life studies, although i do think they are researchers whom are looking in this idea. Do keep an eye on this.

In the next post i will be reviewing some of the hydrothermal vent simulators i have used in the past for origin of life based experiments.

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Basic characteristic of submarine hydrothermal systems (SHS)

Image

The figure above shows the schematics of a typical submarine hydothermal system (SHS). The magma at the hottest zone is about 1200°C. Seawater from the sea penetrates into the crust of the spreading axis (down flows) and towards the “reaction zone” which is about ~400°C. Seawater-rock interaction happens here, the water is then released through and is cooled down rapidly by cold seawater. A quenching effect takes place here. The abundance of minerals and/or metals are also part of the system. Some of the chemical composition of a typical black- smoker type of SHS is shown here. The diagram above represent what we typically call a black-smoker, A black smoker is a type of hydrothermal vent typically found in the abyssal and hadal zones.

A black smoker from NOAA

Common pictures on SHS are generally black smokers. They appear as black chimney-like structures that emits a cloud of black material containing high levels of sulfur-bearing minerals, or sulfides. Black smokers are formed in fields, hundreds of meters wide when superheated water from below earth’s crust comes through the ocean floor. This water is rich in dissolved minerals from the crust, most notably sulfides. When it comes in contact with cold ocean water, many minerals precipitate, forming a black chimney-like structure around each vent. Effluents from black smokers are acidic (pH 2-3) and are rich with transition metals. All the fluids gives out nutrients to all the unusual organisms at the area. Google it!!!

On the other hand, a diffuse flow is an area where hydrothermal fluids flow out instead of a chimney. The fluids from here are much cooler and slower compared compared to a typical SHS. Minerals are usually left behind in this fluids. White smoke appears to come out of the sea floor, hence the term white-smokers were coined. Unlike the black smokers, the fluids coming out of here lacks minerals which comes from their black counterparts. These two type of smokers are typical in a SHS environment. It is speculated that SHS could have existed throughout earth’s ocean, this subsequently fueled the idea that life could have started here, together with the heat loving bacteria. So far, the experiments of SHS are done with simulators at laboratories mainly in Japan and the U.S only. Research using simulators usually utilizes basic chemicals exposed to heat and pressure similar to the vent system (so far the black smokers). Another area of interest is to see the survivability of common bio-molecules such as amino acids in SHS simulators. This is important as data from these kind of experiment usually presents the thermal and pressure limits of the chemicals used in life’s processes. We know now that amino acids (not all) can survive in SHS simulators, which gives a good account to SHS being a good spot to origins. On the other hand, genetic materials (DNA and RNA) are instantly destroyed when exposed to the simulators. This proves to be a difficult scientific problem to solve so far.

In the next post i will be posting briefly about the LOST CITY type of hydrothermal systems, an entirely unique system and will follow with the various kind of SHS simulators i have used before.

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