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ASTROBIOLOGY

Volume 6, Number 5, 2006


© Mary Ann Liebert, Inc.

Education Paper

The Astrobiology Primer: An Outline of General


Knowledge—Version 1, 2006

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Lucas J. Mix, Berkeley, CA (LM; Introduction, 3A, 4A–D, 6B, 7, and 7B)

EDITORS

John C. Armstrong, Weber State University (JA; 5 and 5C)


Avi M. Mandell, Pennsylvania State University (AvM; 5B)
Annika C. Mosier, Stanford University (AnM; 6 and 6C)
Jason Raymond, Arizona State University (JR; 4 and 4B–E)
Sean N. Raymond, University of Colorado, Boulder (SnR; 1, 2, and 2A)
Frank J. Stewart, Harvard University (FS; 3, 3A–C, and 6B)
Kaspar von Braun, California Institute of Technology (KvB; 1 and 1A–C)
Olga Zhaxybayeva, Dalhousie University (OZ; 4 and 4B–D)

AUTHORS

Linda Billings, SETI Institute (LB; 7C)


Vyllinniskii Cameron, Pennsylvania State University (VC; 2B)
Mark Claire, University of Washington (MC; 2C and 2E)
Greg J. Dick, University of California, San Diego (GD; 6B)
Shawn D. Domagal-Goldman, Pennsylvania State University (SG; 2D)
Emmanuelle J. Javaux, University of Liege (EJ; 4F)
Orion J. Johnson, University of Southern California (OJ; 6A)
Chris Laws, University of Washington (CL; 5A)
Margaret S. Race, SETI Institute (MR; 7C)
Jon Rask, Ames Research Center (JoR; 7A)
John D. Rummel, NASA Headquarters (JRm; 7C)
Rachel T. Schelble, University of Southern California (RS; 2C)
Steve Vance, University of Washington (SV; 5D)

735
736 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

CONTRIBUTORS

Zach Adam, University of Washington Michael Manga, University of California,


Peter Backus, SETI Institute Berkeley
Luther Beegle, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Tim McCoy, Smithsonian Institution
Janice Bishop, SETI Institute Karen Meech, University of Hawaii
Kristie Boering, University of California, Gustavo Mello, Observatorio do Valongo, Brazil
Berkeley Steven Mojzsis, University of Colorado, Boulder
Michael Briley, University of Wisconsin, David Morrison, Ames Research Center
Oshkosh Oliver Morton
Wendy Calvin, University of Nevada Duane Moser, Desert Research Institute
David Catling, University of Washington Kenneth Nealson, University of Southern
Carol Cleland, University of Colorado, Boulder California
K. Estelle Dodson, Ames Research Center Francis Nimno, University of California,
Julie Fletcher, Ames Research Center Los Angeles
Eduardo de la Fuente Acosta, University of Ray Norris, CSIRO Australia Telescope
Guadalajara, Mexico National Facility
Ico de Zwart, University of Colorado, Boulder Erika Offerdahl, Arizona State University
Jennifer Eigenbrode, Carnegie Institute Tom Olien, Humber Institute, Canada
Jack Farmer, Arizona State University Norman Pace, University of Colorado,
Siegfried Frank, Potsdam Institute of Climate Boulder
Impact Research, Germany Susan Pfiffner, University of Tennessee
Peter Gogarten, University of Connecticut Cynthia Philips, SETI Institute
Edward Goolish, Ames Research Center Shanti Rao, Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Rosalind Grymes, Ames Research Center Debora Rodriquez, Michigan State University
Nader Haghighipour, University of Hawaii John Rummel, NASA Headquarters
Troy Hudson, Jet Propulsion Laboratory Bill Schopf, University of California,
Vladimir Ivkovic, Institute of Anthropological Los Angeles
Research, Croatia Sara Seager, Carnegie Institute
Muffarah Jahangeer, George Mason University Norman Sleep, Stanford University
Bruce Jakosky, University of Colorado, Boulder Mitchell Sogin, Marine Biological Laboratory,
Scott Kenyon, Smithsonian Astrophysical Woods Hole
Observatory Nina Solovaya, Slovak Academy of Science,
Steven Kilston, Ball Aerospace Slovak Republic
Andrew Knoll, Harvard University Woodruff Sullivan, University of Washington
Eric Korpela, University of California, Berkeley Brian Thomas, University of Kansas
David Lamb, University of California, Santa Thorsteinn Thorsteinsson, Orkustofnun, Iceland
Barbara Carmen Tornow, German Aerospace Center
Jospeh Lazio, Naval Research Laboratory Michael Wevrick
Richard Lenski, Michigan State University Nick Woolf, University of Arizona
Lindsey Link, University of Colorado, Boulder Kosei Yamaguchi, Institute for Frontier
Karen Lloyd, University of North Carolina, Research on Earth Evolution, Japan
Chapel Hill Michael Zerella, University of Colorado,
Jonathan Lunine, University of Arizona Boulder
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 737

FOREWORD TO VERSION 1 (2006)

The Astrobiology Primer has been created as a reference tool for those who are interested in
the interdisciplinary field of astrobiology. The field incorporates many diverse research en-
deavors, but it is our hope that this slim volume will present the reader with all he or she
needs to know to become involved and to understand, at least at a fundamental level, the
state of the art. Each section includes a brief overview of a topic and a short list of readable
and important literature for those interested in deeper knowledge. Because of the great di-
versity of material, each section was written by a different author with a different expertise.
Contributors, authors, and editors are listed at the beginning, along with a list of those chap-
ters and sections for which they were responsible. We are deeply indebted to the NASA
Astrobiology Institute (NAI), in particular to Estelle Dodson, David Morrison, Ed Goolish,
Krisstina Wilmoth, and Rose Grymes for their continued enthusiasm and support. The Primer
came about in large part because of NAI support for graduate student research, collaboration,
and inclusion as well as direct funding. We have entitled the Primer version 1 in hope that
it will be only the first in a series, whose future volumes will be produced every 3–5 years.
This way we can insure that the Primer keeps up with the current state of research. We hope
that it will be a great resource for anyone trying to stay abreast of an ever-changing field. If
you have noticed any errors of fact or wish to be involved in future incarnations of the pro-
ject, please contact Lucas Mix (e-mail: lucas@flirble.org).

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Introduction 739

1. Stellar Formation and Evolution 741


1A. The Formation of Stars 742
1B. The Evolution of Stars 744
1C. The Death of Stars 746

2. Planetary Formation and Evolution 748


2A. Planet Formation and Dynamical Evolution 748
2B. Asteroids, Comets, and Impacts on Earth 752
2C. Introduction to Geology 755
2D. Early Earth Environments 756
2E. Global Climate Evolution 760

3. Astrobiogeochemistry and the Origin of Life 765


3A. Life’s Basic Components 765
3B. Evolution of Complexity 768
3C. Definition of Life 771

4. Evolution of Life Through Time 771


4A. Overview 772
4B. Evolutionary Dynamics 772
4C. Molecular Phylogenetics 774
4D. Rare Events in Evolution 776
4E. Chemical Fossils 777
4F. Paleontology 780
738 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

5. Planet Detection and Characterization 783


5A. Methods of Planet Detection 783
5B. Planet Habitability 786
5C. Exploration and Characterization of Mars 788
5D. Exploration and Characterization of Europa 791

6. Diversity of Life 793


6A. Biodiversity 793
6B. Redox Chemistry and Metabolic Diversity 797
6C. Life in Extreme Environments 799

7. Science in Space 804


7A. Space Biology 804
7B. Planetary Missions 807
7C. Planetary Protection 809

Notes on Figures 811

Figures
1.1. Local Numbers 741

1.2. Color-Magnitude Diagram 743

1.3. Stellar Properties 744

2.1. Solar System Bodies


A. Orbital Parameters 749
B. Planetary Properties 749

2.2. Geologic Time Scale (Earth and Mars) 757

2.3. The History of Atmospheric O2 763

4.1. Important Events in the Precambrian 779

5.1. Extrasolar Planets


A. Mass Distribution 784
B. Orbital Characteristics 784

5.2. The Habitable Zone around Main Sequence Stars 786

6.1. Tree of Life: Archaea 794

6.2. Tree of Life: Bacteria 794

6.3. Tree of Life: Eukarya 795

6.4. Characteristics of the Three Domains 796

6.5. Redox Potentials and Life 798

6.6. The Limits of Known Life on Earth 800

6.7. Extremophiles 801


2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 739

Introduction (LM) help you to brush up on the basics before attend-


ing a talk or visiting a colleague in a different field.

A STROBIOLOGY, the study of life as a planetary


phenomenon, aims to understand the fun-
damental nature of life on Earth and the possi-
The Primer originated at the 2001 general meet-
ing of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI).
NAI worked hard on the education and incorpo-
bility of life elsewhere. To achieve this goal, ration of graduate students, and this project
astrobiologists have initiated unprecedented stemmed from a discussion as to the range of
communication among the disciplines of astron- background knowledge an astrobiologist may be
omy, biology, chemistry, and geology. Astrobiol- expected to have. Several of us decided that grad-
ogists also use insights from information and sys- uate students entering into the field would ben-
tems theory to evaluate how those disciplines efit from a short volume that would not only act
function and interact. The fundamental questions as an introduction to astrobiology but also
of what “life” means and how it arose have provide background in areas where an astrobiol-
brought in broad philosophical concerns, while ogist may wish to be competent. As the project
the practical limits of space exploration have evolved, we came to believe that such a reference
meant that engineering plays an important role would be invaluable to the entire community and
as well. very likely contribute to the developing discus-
The benefits of this interdisciplinary collabora- sion between disciplines.
tion have been, and continue to be, immense. The Above all, the Primer is intended to be an ongo-
input of scientists from multiple areas has forced ing project. This volume includes only the most re-
researchers to become aware of their basic as- cent and limited version of a larger endeavor. If the
sumptions and why they do science the way they project is well received, a new version of the Primer
do. Cooperation has led to insights about the will be released every 3–5 years. Each version will
many connections between life and the atmos- incorporate new research and correct the mistakes
phere, oceans, and crust of Earth. Comparisons of earlier versions No one volume, of course, can
of geologic and atmospheric features on Earth, contain the vast amount of information brought to
Mars, and Venus have provided insight into these play in astrobiology, but we believe that the Primer
planets’ varying histories and what part life may will provide a forum and a language around which
or may not have played. Likewise, the growing the community will have the opportunity to de-
body of data about planets orbiting distant stars velop a consensus about central issues.
(as well as smaller bodies orbiting our own star)
has revealed much about the formation of our What the Primer Is Not
own planetary system and how stars and planets
The Astrobiology Primer is not a textbook.
interact.
Many good textbooks exist, and we would like to
There is, however, a steep learning curve in as-
recommend the following:
trobiology due to the variety of backgrounds
brought to the field. Conferences provide unique
insights but can be tedious and unproductive Astronomy
when presenters and audience fail to connect on Carroll, B.W. and Ostlie D.A. (1996) An Introduc-
terminology and basic assumptions. The purpose tion to Modern Astrophysics, Addison-Wesley,
of the Astrobiology Primer is to bridge some of Reading, MA.
these gaps by creating a common foundation in Freedman, R. and Kaufmann, W.J. (1999) Uni-
knowledge. verse, 5th ed., W.H. Freeman, Sunderland, MA.

What the Primer Is Biochemistry


Our intention was to create a short, accessible, Garrett, R.H. and Grisham, C.M. (2004) Biochem-
and very limited reference for astrobiologists. We istry, 3rd ed., Brooks Cole, Florence, KY.
hope that many of you will, at one time or another,
come to the Primer with a specific question and
Biology
find the answer or the location of an answer in the
literature. We also hope that you will come to see Purves, W.K., Sadava, D., Orians, G.H., and
the Primer as a kind of reference guide that will Heller, C. (2003) Life: The Science of Biology, 7th
740 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

ed., Sinauer Associates and W.H. Freeman, and limited knowledge of the editors. Where we
Sunderland, MA. have erred, we hope that you will contact us and
help us create a reliable central index of infor-
Chemistry mation for astrobiologists.
Neither is the Primer an official representation
Brown, T.L., Lemay, H.E., Bursten, B.E., and
of NASA/NAI research, positions, or goals.
Lemay, H. (1999) Chemistry: The Central Science,
While NAI has been greatly helpful in facilitating
8th ed., Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
communication and resources, the contents of the
Primer are a product of independent work. We
Geology are deeply indebted to NAI and the International
Marshak, S. (2004) Essentials of Geology: Portrait of Astronomical Union Commission 51: Bioastron-
Earth, W.W. Norton and Co., New York. omy for their efforts.
Plummer, C.C., McGeary, D., and Carlson, D.
(2002) Physical Geology, 9th ed., McGraw Hill, How the Primer Was Arranged
New York. The Primer was constructed collaboratively.
Ninety researchers from around the world con-
Microbiology tributed information with regard to what they ex-
pected from other astrobiologists and what they
Madigan, M. and Martinko, J. (2005) Brock Biol-
would like to know themselves but still had dif-
ogy of Microorganisms, 11th ed., Prentice Hall,
ficulty understanding (see Contributors). Those
Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
submissions were read and considered by the ed-
itors who produced a list of seven general cate-
Planetary Science gories of knowledge, represented by the seven
de Pater, I. and Lissauer, J.J. (2001) Planetary Sci- chapters in the Primer.
ences, University Press, Cambridge, UK. Each chapter has been divided into small, di-
gestible segments with references for further in-
formation. The brevity of the Primer means that
Physics
much important research was left out and some
Halliday, D., Resnick, R., and Walker, J. (2004) material has been oversimplified. The editors
Fundamentals of Physics, 7th ed., John Wiley and would like to apologize for the undoubted errors
Sons, New York. and omissions that resulted from our attempts to
condense the material.
Astrobiology The initials appearing at the beginning of each
chapter reflect the editor responsible for gather-
Gilmour, I. and Stephton, M. (2004) An Introduc-
ing and organizing the information in that chap-
tion to Astrobiology, Cambridge University
ter. Likewise, the initials at the beginning of each
Press, Cambridge, UK.
section indicate the author for that section. In
Lunine, J. (2004) Astrobiology: A Multi-Disciplinary
both cases, however, input from contributors and
Approach, Addison Wesley, Reading, MA.
editors has seriously impacted the content and
tone of the material.
A publication this size cannot provide a com-
plete picture of any one topic. It is our wish, how-
A Note on Terminology
ever, that the Primer will be viewed as a table of
contents for the vast literature available. Sections One of the challenges inherent to any multi-
of the Primer are written to represent a synthesis disciplinary work is that a number of key words
and point readers to resources and terms that will hold different meanings within the various disci-
allow them to find the current state of the art. The plines. We have tried, in this work, to be consis-
articles listed below each section are valuable tent throughout, though some ambiguities re-
places to look for more information, but they are main.
not, in general, citations. Each author brings a great The word “terrestrial” has been particularly
deal of additional information to his or her section. problematic with regard to the Primer, and there-
Unfortunately, the Primer cannot be compre- fore “terrestrial” or earthlike planets are referred
hensive. Each chapter will demonstrate the biases to as rocky planets and “terrestrial” or Earth-
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 741

located organisms and environments are referred between 100 and 400 billion stars with vastly dif-
to as terrean. Also, when referring to organisms ferent astrophysical properties in the Milky Way
living on land or in soil (as opposed to aquatic or Galaxy, which itself is one of hundreds of billions
oceanic), “terrestrial” has been replaced by land- of very different galaxies in the observable uni-
dwelling or similar words. The word “terrestrial” verse.
was not used except in references and proper In the Milky Way, stars are continually being
names (i.e., Terrestrial Planet Finder). born and dying—some quiet and some extremely
violent deaths. The material of which stars are
Abbreviation made is physically and chemically altered within
the stars throughout the course of their lifetimes
NAI, NASA Astrobiology Institute.
and at their deaths. Practically, all elements heav-
ier than helium—and thus all components of the
organic molecules necessary for life to form—are
Chapter 1. Stellar Formation and
produced by stars. (For a specific definition of
Evolution (KvB, SnR)
“organic,” which is not equivalent to “biological,”
see Sec. 3A.) At the end of a star’s life, this ma-
Introduction: Stars and Astrobiology
terial is partially returned to the place from
Stars like the Sun appear to the eye as pinpoints whence it came: the interstellar medium (ISM).
of light in the sky. They are, in fact, enormous The ISM contains a mixture of gas (single atoms
balls of gas, each emitting vast amounts of energy and small molecules) and dust (larger chunks of
every second in a losing battle against the relent- matter, near 1 m in size) that penetrates the en-
less inward gravitational force generated by their tire galaxy. It is in the ISM where the formation
own titanic masses. The radiation emitted by the of stars, planets, and ultimately life begins.
Sun constitutes the primary source of energy for [Editor’s note: Astronomers call all elements
most life forms on earth (see Fig. 1.1). There are except hydrogen (H) and helium (He) metals.

FIG. 1.1. Local numbers.


742 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

Chemists call metal all elements except hydrogen, form much less frequently than their lower-
halogens (B, C, N, O, Si, P, S, As, Se, Te, F, Cl, Br, mass counterparts. High-mass stars require the
I, At), and noble gasses (He, Ne, Ar, Kr, Xe, Rn). existence of much more massive prestellar
Biologists will occasionally refer to elements cores (described below) than do low-mass
other than those basic to life (C, H, N, O, P, S) as stars. Furthermore, high-mass stars have sig-
metals if they are associated with a biomolecule; nificantly shorter lifetimes.
however, usage is not consistent.]
de Avillez, M.A. and Breitschwerdt, D. (2005) Global dy-
1A. The Formation of Stars (KvB) namical evolution of the ISM in star forming galaxies.
I. High resolution 3D simulations: effect of the mag-
The ISM and Molecular Clouds (MCs) netic field. Astron. Astrophys. 436, 585–600.
Homeier, N.L. and Alves, J. (2005) Massive star formation
Stars are born within MCs, dark interstellar in the W49 giant molecular cloud: implications for the
clouds within the ISM made of gas and dust. The formation of massive star clusters. Astron. Astrophys.
density of these MCs is 102–104 molecules/cm3, 430, 481–489.
about a factor of 1,000 higher than typical inter- Goldsmith, P.F. and Li, D. (2005) H I narrow self-absorp-
stellar densities. Molecular gas makes up about tion in dark clouds: correlations with molecular gas and
implications for cloud evolution and star formation. As-
99% of the mass of the clouds; dust accounts for
trophys. J. 622, 938–958.
a mere 1%. Typical masses of MCs are about Machida, M.N., Tomisaka, K., Nakamura, F., and Fuji-
103–104 solar masses extended across 30 light moto, M.Y. (2005) Low-mass star formation triggered
years. The chemical composition of MCs varies, by supernovae in primordial clouds. Astrophys. J. 622,
but a good approximation is that they are made 39–57.
up mostly of hydrogen (74% by mass), helium van Dishoeck, E.F. (2004) ISO spectroscopy of gas and
(25% by mass), and heavier elements (1% by dust: from molecular clouds to protoplanetary disks.
Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 42, 119–167.
mass).
Shock waves within MCs (caused by super-
sonic stellar winds or massive supernovae, for ex- Protostars and the Birth of Stars
ample) are chiefly responsible for the compres-
sion and subsequent clumping of gas and dust A blob of gas several times the size of our So-
inside the cloud. Gravity condenses local clumps lar System, called a prestellar core, contracts un-
to form protostars and, eventually, stars. This is der its own gravity to form a protostar. Half of
only possible if the cloud is sufficiently cold and the system’s initial gravitational energy disperses
no other mechanisms (such as strong magnetic through radiation, while the other half is con-
fields or turbulence) are present to halt collapse. verted into heat. The temperature of the core be-
Typical temperatures within MCs are 10–30 K. gins to rise. After a few thousand years of col-
MCs of many thousands of solar masses typi- lapse, low-mass protostars (4 solar masses)
cally produce a large number of protostars and typically reach temperatures of 2,000–3,000 K and
are commonly referred to as stellar nurseries. The begin to emit light. As they are still enshrouded
protostellar cloud loses mass, and star formation in a cloud of gas and dust, however, these pro-
efficiency—the proportion of the original mass tostars are not observable in visible wavelengths
retained by the final star—is on the order of a few but only the infrared (IR), where dust is relatively
percent. Some consequences of this fact are the transparent.
following: Over the course of 1–10 million years, the tem-
perature in the core of a low-mass protostar
• Stars preferentially form in clusters of most reaches a few million K by converting the poten-
likely hundreds of stars since MCs will not just tial energy lost due to gravitational contraction
form one star. Over time (10–100 million years), into heat. At that point, a new source of energy
these clusters may disperse since the gravita- is tapped: thermonuclear fusion sets in and starts
tional pull between stars is not strong enough converting H to He, thereby releasing enormous
to keep them together once the gas dissipates. amounts of energy. Increased temperature halts
• A substantial fraction of stars (half or more of gravitational collapse, and when hydrostatic
all stars in the Milky Way) are members of bi- equilibrium is reached (gravitational forces 
nary or multiple star systems. forces created by thermal pressure), the protostar
• High-mass stars (4 solar masses or higher) becomes a main sequence star (see Sec. 1B).
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 743

FIG. 1.2. Color-magnitude diagram (CMD). The observational CMD of the globular cluster M12 is shown. The x-
axis indicates color as a proxy for temperature, with blue/hot to the left. The y-axis indicates magnitude/
brightness, with bright toward the top. MS, main sequence; TO, turnoff point; SGB, subgiant branch; RGB, red giant
branch; HB, horizontal branch; AGB, asymptotic giant branch; WD, theoretical white dwarfs region (not observed in
the data used for this figure). It is important to point out that the data represent a snapshot of a stellar population’s
distribution of stars, and not the evolutionary track of any one star. The x-axis indicates color as the difference be-
tween magnitudes measured in green and near-infrared light. The smaller the value of the color, the bluer and hot-
ter the star is. The y-axis indicates apparent brightness in units of magnitudes where lower brightness corresponds
to numerically higher magnitudes. A difference of 5 magnitudes corresponds to a factor of 100 in flux (energy re-
ceived per second for a given detector size), so a star of magnitude 5 (limit of visibility to the naked eye) appears 100
times fainter than a star of magnitude 0. Brightness/magnitude for a given star can be measured in different filters,
such as blue, green, red, infrared, etc. The difference between two magnitudes in different filters for a given star is
indicative of its color and thus surface temperature. For instance, a hot, blue star would appear brighter in the blue
than in the red.

Less frequent, more massive (4–15 or more so- ten and form a “circumstellar disk” of material
lar masses) protostars evolve differently. The col- rotating around the protostar. Particles in this
lapse and subsequent heating occurs much more disk will interact with each other, which causes
rapidly, and the onset of H-burning in the core is them to lose energy and migrate inward, and as
reached after only 20,000 to 1 million years. a result matter is accreted onto the protostar. It is
A word of caution: the image of dust and gas believed that such circumstellar disks provide the
simply falling straight onto the forming protostar environment necessary for planet formation.
is incorrect. All material in the universe has some
angular momentum, and the gravitational col- Carroll, B.W. and Ostlie, D.A. (1996) An Introduction to
lapse of gas and dust onto the prestellar core is a Modern Astrophysics, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.
complex phenomenon. Conservation of angular Hartmann, W.K. (1993) Moons & Planets, 3rd ed.,
momentum causes the infalling material to flat- Wadsworth, Florence, KY.
744 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

Harvey, D.W.A., Wilner, D.J., Myers, P.C., and Tafalla, M. diagram that shows the luminosities (energy emit-
(2003) Disk properties and density structure of the star- ted by the star per second) of stars as a function of
forming dense core B335. Astrophys. J. 596, 383–388. their surface temperature—a Hertzsprung-Russell
Lefloch, B., Cernicharo, J., Rodriguez, L.F., Miville-De-
Diagram (HRD) (not shown here). Stars spend
schenes, M.A., Cesarsky, D. and Heras, A. (2002) The
photoionization of a star-forming core in the Trifid about 90% of their lives on the main sequence. As
Nebula. Astrophys. J. 581, 335–356. they evolve, their luminosities and surface tem-
perature change, and they leave the main sequence
to occupy different regions of the HRD. The ob-
1B. The Evolution of Stars (KvB) servational equivalent of the HRD is the color-
magnitude diagram (CMD), which lists magnitude
The Main Sequence
(apparent brightness) as a function of color (in-
A star reaches the “main sequence” when its pri- dicative of effective surface temperature: blue 
mary source of energy is thermonuclear fusion in hotter, red  cooler). Figure 1.2 shows a CMD of
the stellar core. The main sequence is a region in a the globular cluster (GC) M12 with the various evo-

FIG. 1.3. Stellar properties. Various astrophysical parameters for main sequence stars of various spec-
tral types, having a chemical composition not too different than that of the Sun. MS lifetime reflects av-
erage time [in billions of years (Ga)] on the main sequence. The last two columns list peak wavelength
emitted and the dominant color (observed near the star). IR, infrared; UV, ultraviolet. The calculations of
the approximate main sequence lifetimes are based on the assumption that the Sun will be on the main
sequence for 10 Ga. The luminosities are calculated using the Stephan-Boltzmann Law, i.e., integrated
over all wavelengths. Values for stars that have left the main sequence (Sec. 1C), brown dwarfs (Sec. 1B),
Jupiter, and Earth are listed for comparison. (*At specific wavelengths only.)
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 745

lutionary stages (discussed below) of a star’s life la- quence star with a surface temperature of
beled. All stars in a GC are located at about the around 5,800 K.
same distance from Earth, have nearly identical By definition, a star is said to leave the main
chemical compositions, and were born around the sequence when its H supply in the core has run
same time. Since all stars in the GC are located at out (Sec. 1C).
the same distance from Earth, their observed
brightness reflects their intrinsic brightness (or Cox, A.N. (2000) Allen’s Astrophysical Quantities, 4th ed.,
luminosity). Stars of different masses evolve at dif- Springer-Verlag, New York.
ferent rates, however, and the CMD of a GC Gallart, C., Freedman, W.L., Mateo, M., Chiosi, C.,
includes stars at different evolutionary stages Thompson, I.B., Aparicio, A., Bertelli, G., Hodge, P.W.,
(despite their same age). Lee, M.G., Olszewski, E.W., Saha, A., Stetson, P.B., and
Suntzeff, N.B. (1999) Hubble Space Telescope observa-
The single most important stellar parameter,
tions of the Local Group dwarf galaxy Leo I. Astrophys.
mass, defines where a star is located on the main J. 514, 665–674.
sequence and what its evolution will be. The Richer, H.B., Fahlman, G.G., Brewer, J., Davis, S., Kalirai,
more massive a star is, the greater are its surface J., Stetson, P.B., Hansen, B., Rich, R.M., Ibata, R., Gib-
temperature and luminosity. The relationship is son, B.K., and Shara, M.M. (2004) Hubble Space Tele-
approximately L  M3.5, where L is luminosity scope observations of the main sequence of M4. Astron.
and M is stellar mass. A higher stellar mass fur- J. 127, 2771–2792.
von Braun, K., Mateo, M., Chiboucas, K., Athey, A., and
thermore implies a shorter lifetime and more vi-
Hurley-Keller, D. (2002) Photometry results for the
olent final stages. Masses of main sequence stars globular clusters M10 and M12: extinction maps, color-
range between 0.08 solar masses and 100 solar magnitude diagrams, and variable star candidates. As-
masses. Below 0.08 solar masses, the conditions tron. J. 124, 2067–2082.
for H-burning are not reached. However, for
masses between 0.013 (13 Jupiter masses) and
Astrophysical Properties of Stars on the
0.08 solar masses, less energetic deuterium burn-
Main Sequence
ing may take place. These substellar objects,
called brown dwarfs, separate giant planets from Every star on the main sequence burns H to He
stars. Above 100 solar masses, internal pressures in its core by one of two processes: the proton-
overcome gravity, and the prestellar core will not proton chain or the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cy-
collapse sufficiently. Such high-mass stars are ex- cle. Stars of roughly 1 solar mass or less reach up
tremely rare. to about 16 million Kelvin in their cores and burn
Stellar mass can only rarely be observed di- H via the proton-proton chain reaction. H atoms
rectly, so stars are typically classified by “spec- react directly to form He. More massive stars
tral type.” The Sun’s spectral type, for instance, have higher core temperature (Tcore) values and
is G2 V. Stars are sorted into the following spec- favor the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle to pro-
tral types in order of decreasing mass and sur- duce energy. These stars contain a significant
face temperature: O, B, A, F, G, K, M, L, T. amount of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen (about
Within these spectral types, smaller distinctions 1/1,000 atoms) produced by previous genera-
are made by adding a number between 0 and 9 tions of stars. Atoms transitioning from one ele-
to the spectral type. Thus, the surface tempera- ment to another catalyze the fusion of H.
ture of a B star is hotter than that of an F star, The structure of stars also differs as a function
and the surface temperature of a G2 star is of mass. Energy is produced in the stellar core
slightly hotter than that of a G7 star. Some as- and needs to be transported outward, by either
trophysical parameters associated with spectral convection (circulation of a fluid) or radiative dif-
types of main sequence stars are given in the fusion (electromagnetic radiation). For stars with
stellar properties table (Fig. 1.3). Furthermore, less than 0.8 solar masses, energy is transported
stars are categorized into luminosity classes, via convection all the way to the surface and ra-
which are essentially a measure of evolutionary diated into space. Stars with masses between 0.8
stage. Suffice it to say here that all main se- and 4 solar masses have a radiative zone around
quence stars are considered “dwarfs” and have the core and a convective envelope around the ra-
a luminosity class of V (the Roman numeral for diative zone. Finally, high-mass stars (4 solar
5). The Sun—a G2 V star—is thus a main se- masses) transport the energy from their cores first
746 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

convectively and then radiatively to their sur- luminosity in spite of decreased temperature. The
faces. Sun, for instance, will become so large that it will
Other astrophysical parameters vary tremen- eventually swallow Mercury and Venus and
dously between main sequence stars of different reach Earth’s orbit (which corresponds to about
masses. Some are shown in the stellar properties 200 times the Sun’s current radius). Furthermore,
table (Fig. 1.3). the Sun will lose mass from its outer layers in the
form of stellar wind at a much higher rate than
Cox, A.N. (2000) Allen’s Astrophysical Quantities, 4th ed., during its time on the main sequence (around
Springer-Verlag, New York. 107 MSun/year vs. 1014 MSun/year on the main
Freedman, R. and Kaufmann, W.J. (1999) Universe, 5th ed.,
sequence).
W.H. Freeman, Sunderland, MA.
As the He produced by the H-burning shell
rains down onto the He core, the core grows in
Post-Main Sequence Evolution mass and heats up until, at around 100 million K,
He starts thermonuclear fusion to form C and O
Over the course of its time on the main se- (which happens toward the tip of the RGB; Fig.
quence, a star gradually uses up the H fuel in the 1.2). This re-ignition of core fusion causes the ces-
core and consequently undergoes changes in lu- sation of H-shell burning. The star shrinks in ra-
minosity, radius, and surface temperature. The dius, its surface temperature rises, and its lumi-
decrease of atomic nuclei in the core (4 H nuclei nosity decreases. Consequently, it moves across
form 1 He nucleus) lowers the pressure, which to the middle of the CMD (Fig. 1.2), from right to
counteracts the gravitational force and results in left along the horizontal branch, until the He sup-
a shrinking and heating of the core. Increased ply in the core is depleted. During this phase, a
Tcore accelerates the rate of H-burning and causes star can become unstable to pulsation in its outer
the star to increase in size, surface temperature, layers (these stars are known as RR Lyrae or
and luminosity. Over the course of the Sun’s 4.6 Cepheid variables). At this point, the final stage
billion years on the main sequence, it has in- of evolution of a star begins, which differs sig-
creased its radius by 6%, its surface temperature nificantly between a low-mass star (4 MSun) and
by 300 K, and its luminosity by 40%. The relative a high-mass star (4 MSun).
faintness of the young Sun has raised concerns
about the temperature and habitability of the Cassisi, S. (2005) Uncertainties and systematics in stellar
early Earth (the “faint young Sun” problem; see evolution models. In Resolved Stellar Populations, 2005,
Sec. 2E). Cancun, Mexico. Available online at: http://arxiv.org/
abs/astro-ph/0506161.
Eventually, a star’s H supply in the core runs
Gautschy, A. and Saio, H. (1996) Stellar pulsations across
out, and it leaves the main sequence at the turnoff the HR diagram: Part II. Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys.
point (TO in Fig. 1.2). Its time on the main se- 34, 551–606.
quence covers approximately 90% of a star’s life- Herbig, G.H. (1962) Spectral classification of faint mem-
time. The post-main sequence evolution takes up bers of the Hyades and Pleiades and the dating prob-
a relatively short time and, as on the main se- lem in galactic clusters. Astrophys. J. 135, 736.
quence, progresses much more rapidly for mas- Massey, P. (2003) Massive stars in the Local Group: im-
sive stars than low-mass stars. When the fuel in plications for stellar evolution and star formation.
Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 41, 15–56.
the core is exhausted, a star starts burning H to
Willson, L.A. (2000) Mass loss from cool stars: impact on
He in a shell of H surrounding the core. During the evolution of stars and stellar populations. Annu.
this time, the He core contracts and heats up, Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 38, 573–611.
while the layers above the H-burning shell ex-
pand and cool. Energy output of the shell and
gravitational energy released from the shrinking 1C. The Death of Stars (KvB)
core drive the luminosity of the star significantly
The Death of Low-Mass Stars
higher. Thus, the star moves from left to right
along the subgiant branch (SGB in Fig. 1.2) and When the He in the core of a low-mass star is
up the red giant branch (RGB in Fig. 1.2). During depleted (it has all been fused into heavier ele-
this phase, a star’s radius increases to many times ments), the He shell that surrounds the core starts
its main sequence size, which results in increased thermonuclear fusion. History repeats itself, and
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 747

the star enters a second red giant phase, this time process called slow neutron capture, during
crossing the CMD back along the asymptotic gi- which neutrons collide and combine with
ant branch (AGB in the CMD). The star’s mass charged protons. This sequence, however, ends
loss rate is around 104 MSun/year, its surface at iron (for Mstar  8 MSun) since the fusion of Fe
temperature 3,000 K, and the luminosity nuclei will not give off any net energy. Stars with
around 10,000 LSun. The very final stage of the Mstar  8 MSun undergo a similar evolution to the
low-mass star is the gradual shedding of all of the low-mass stars and divest themselves of their
outer H and He layers, so that only the core re- outer layers (H, He, C, Ne, O, etc.) in a planetary
mains. This core is roughly Earth-sized, with a nebula.
surface temperature of 100,000 K, and is com- For stars with Mstar  8 MSun, the inert Fe core
prised entirely of carbon and oxygen. The ex- signals the star’s impending doom. The core, no
panding outer layers that were shed are referred longer able to sustain thermonuclear fusion,
to as a planetary nebula, and the remaining core contracts rapidly to produce the heat and energy
is known as a white dwarf (WD in the CMD). required to stabilize the system. Once the Fe core
There are an estimated 20,000–50,000 planetary reaches about 1.4 MSun, it is no longer capable
nebulae in the galaxy that return a total of around of supporting itself against gravity, and the core
5 MSun/year of material to the ISM (15% of all rapidly contracts, going from Earth size to the
matter expelled by the various sorts of stars). size of a city in less than a second. The collapse
is then halted by quantum effects. The outer lay-
Bernard-Salas, J. and Tielens, A.G.G.M. (2005) Physical ers of the star crash onto the core and bounce
conditions in photo-dissociation regions around plan- off, creating a shock wave as the outward mov-
etary nebulae. Astron. Astrophys. 431, 523–538.
ing material runs into additional infalling lay-
O’Dell, C.R., McCullough, P.R., and Meixner, M. (2004)
Unraveling the Helix Nebula: its structure and knots.
ers. The shock wave expands in a gigantic ex-
Astron. J. 128, 2339–2356. plosion in which the outer layers of the star are
Schönberger, D., Jacob, R., Steffen, M., Perinotto, M., Cor- ejected in a supernova. Supernovae pack aston-
radi, R.L.M., and Acker, A. (2005) The evolution of plan- ishing amounts of energy and typically outshine
etary nebulae. II. Circumstellar environment and ex- entire galaxies (100 billion stars) for a few days
pansion properties. Astron. Astrophys. 431, 963–978. or weeks. Depending on how much mass re-
mains in the stellar core, the center of a super-
The Death of High-Mass Stars and nova forms either a neutron star (if the mass of
Replenishment of Metals in the ISM the stellar core 3 MSun) or a black hole (if 3
MSun).
The Tcore of high-mass stars can reach suffi- During this cataclysmic explosion, the shock
ciently high values (600 million K) to initiate the wave that travels outward through the burning
thermonuclear fusion of C, which produces O, layers initiates a new wave of thermonuclear re-
Ne, Na, and Mg as by-products. If Tcore reaches actions by which many new elements are created,
1 billion K or more, even more thermonuclear re- including many elements heavier than Fe. These
actions can take place, such as Ne-burning. If Tcore “new” elements are thus returned to the ISM, the
reaches 1.5 billion K, then O-burning will take source of the star’s original constituents during
place (creating S), and at 2.7 billion K, Si-burning its formation. Finally, the shockwave of the su-
will create a number of nuclei all the way up to pernova compresses regions of the ISM and fuels
Fe (this occurs for Mstar  8 MSun). New shell- the formation of new stars. Thus, the process has
burning and red giant phases occur before every completed one full circle and is ready to begin
new stage of core-burning. One may think of an again with the formation of a new star.
iron core surrounded by a number of nuclei-burn-
ing shells (the “onion-model”). The result of these
ever-expanding outer layers is a supergiant (lu- Adams, F.C. and Laughlin, G. (1997) A dying universe:
the long-term fate and evolution of astrophysical ob-
minosity class I) whose radius can reach 1,000
jects. Rev. Modern Phys. 69, 337–372.
RSun (one example is Betelgeuse in Orion). Appenzeller, I. (1987) Theory of vibrational instabilities
During the burning of increasingly heavier nu- in luminous early type stars. In Instabilities in Luminous
clei, thermonuclear reactions produce a number Early Type Stars, edited by H. Lamers and C. de Loore,
of different chemical elements and isotopes by a Reidel, Dordrecht, Germany, pp. 55–67.
748 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

de Avillez, M.A. and Breitschwerdt, D. (2005) Global dy- de Pater, I. and Lissauer, J.J. (2001) Planet formation. In
namical evolution of the ISM in star forming galaxies. Planetary Sciences, Cambridge University Press, Cam-
I. High resolution 3D simulations: effect of the mag- bridge, UK, pp. 439–476.
netic field. Astron. Astrophys. 436, 585–600.
Freedman, R. and Kaufmann, W.J. (1999) Universe, 5th ed., Overview of the Solar System
W.H. Freeman, Sunderland, MA.
Machida, M.N., Tomisaka, K., Nakamura, F., and Fujimoto, Our Solar System contains four rocky planets
M.Y. (2005) Low-mass star formation triggered by su- (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars), two gas gi-
pernovae in primordial clouds. Astrophys. J. 622, 39–57. ant planets (Jupiter and Saturn), two ice giant
Willson, L.A. (2000) Mass loss from cool stars: impact on
planets (Uranus and Neptune), and three reser-
the evolution of stars and stellar populations. Annu.
Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 38, 573–611. voirs of small bodies (the asteroid belt, the Kuiper
Belt including Pluto, and the Oort Cloud) (see Fig.
2.1). The orbits of all the planets lie in roughly the
Abbreviations same plane, and they all orbit the Sun in the same
AGB, asymptotic giant branch; CMD, color- direction.
magnitude diagram; GC, globular cluster; HRD, The rocky planets range from 0.4 to 1.5 astro-
Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram; IR, infrared; ISM, nomical units (AU), or the distance from Earth to
interstellar medium; MC, molecular cloud; RGB, the Sun, and consist largely of nickel-iron cores
red giant branch; SGB, subgiant branch; Tcore, with silicate rock mantles and crusts. They vary
core temperature; TO, turnoff point; WD, white in density (mainly because of the size of their
dwarf. cores), surface age, atmospheric composition, or-
bital eccentricity (the amount their orbits vary
from perfect circles), rotation rate, magnetic field
Chapter 2. Planet Formation and strength, and number of satellites (moons).
Evolution (SnR) The giant planets range from 5 to 30 AU and
consist mainly of hydrogen and helium in
This chapter describes the formation and evolu- roughly the same proportions as the Sun. Saturn
tion of planets. In Sec. 2A, we present the current possesses a rocky core of about 10 Earth masses,
understanding of the formation and the dynamical and there is debate as to whether Jupiter also has
(orbital) evolution of rocky and gas giant planets. a core. The ice giants consist largely of water
Asteroids and comets, the “leftovers” of planet for- (H2O), ammonia (NH3), methane (CH4), and
mation, are vitally important to astrobiology in rock, with thin H-He atmospheres. Volatiles like
terms of impacts on Earth, and are discussed in Sec. water and ammonia are present in liquid state.
2B. Section 2C introduces fundamental concepts in The small body reservoirs are thought to be the
geology. The geophysical environments of the remnants of planet formation. They are populated
early Earth, which span a huge range of conditions, by small, rocky/icy bodies, which are the source
are examined in Sec. 2D. Section 2E reviews the for- of impacts on Earth. The asteroid belt, Kuiper Belt,
mation and evolution of Earth’s atmosphere, high- and Oort Cloud are discussed in detail in Sec. 2B.
lighting the rise of oxygen.
Orbits and Resonances
2A. Planet Formation and Dynamical
Kepler’s laws explain that all bodies orbit the
Evolution (SnR) Sun in ellipses, with the Sun at one focus. An or-
Prior to the discovery of extrasolar planets, the- bit is characterized by six orbital elements, three
ories of planet formation needed only to explain of which are important to know:
our Solar System. In this chapter, we give an
overview of the current paradigm for the forma- 1. The semimajor axis a is the mean distance be-
tion of both rocky and gas/ice giant planets. We tween the body and the Sun.
discuss the contents of our Solar System and the 2. The eccentricity e measures the deviation of an
nomenclature of orbital dynamics, current theo- orbit from a perfect circle. A circular orbit has
ries of giant planet formation and migration, and e  0; an elliptical orbit has 0  e  1. Objects
potentially habitable, rocky planets. Known ex- with eccentricity greater than 1 are said to be
trasolar planets are discussed in detail in another in “escape orbit” and will not remain in the
chapter (Sec. 5A). system.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 749

FIG. 2.1. Solar System bodies: (A) orbital parameters and (B) planetary properties. AU, astronomical unit.
750 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

3. The inclination i measures the angle between ticularly important). Radial mixing and giant
a body’s orbit and the plane of Earth’s orbit impacts continue until only a few survivors re-
(the ecliptic). main in well-separated orbits.

Although the Sun is the primary gravitational There is a Catch-22 in the formation of habit-
influence in the Solar System, the dynamical im- able rocky planets with respect to water. A hab-
portance of the planets and other massive bodies itable planet resides in the habitable zone (HZ) of
cannot be ignored. Orbital resonances (also called its star: the region in which liquid water may ex-
mean-motion resonances) occur when the orbital ist on the planet’s surface given certain assump-
periods of two bodies form an integer ratio (e.g., tions (Sec. 5B). The HZ for the Solar System lies
2:1, 5:3, etc.). Resonances are found throughout between roughly 0.9 and 1.4 AU. Rocky planets
the Solar System and may be stable or unstable. acquire water by the accretion of smaller, water-
rich bodies. The temperature in the HZ, however,
is too hot for ice to form. How, then, does a planet
Rocky Planet Formation and
acquire water and become truly habitable?
Volatile Delivery
One scenario is that Earth and other habitable
The planets formed from a disk of gas and dust planets acquire water relatively late in the for-
known as the solar nebula. The lifetime of the gas mation process. Water was delivered to Earth in
component of analogous disks around other stars the form of planetesimals and planetary embryos
has been measured to be roughly 1–10 million from past the snow line, where the temperature
years (Briceño et al., 2001). The giant planets are, was below 170 K and water could condense into
therefore, restricted to have formed within the ice (see Morbidelli et al., 2000). Isotopic evidence
lifetime of the gaseous disk, but the time scale for (hydrogen ratios) suggests that most of Earth’s
rocky planet formation is considerably longer, water originated in the outer asteroid region past
roughly 100 million years. Rocky planets form in roughly 2.5 AU, rather than in the more distant,
several distinct stages (for a detailed review, see cometary region. These water-rich, rocky bodies
Chambers, 2004, and references therein): were subsequently transported to the inner Solar
System by orbital dynamics.
1. Solid grains condense from the nebula and The final assembly of the rocky planets is
grow by sticky collisions with other grains. strongly affected by the gravitational influence of
They settle to the denser mid-plane of the disk. the giant planets. These typically remove (via col-
Volatiles (water, methane, etc.) form as ices in lisions and ejections) about half of the total mass
the outer regions, while materials such as iron in the inner Solar System and contribute to the
and silicates that can condense at high tem- orbital eccentricities of the rocky planets. Current
peratures are more common in the inner disk. surveys have shown us a glimpse of the diversity
2. Grains grow to kilometer-sized planetesimals, of systems of giant planets in the galaxy (see Sec.
via either pairwise accretion (piece-by-piece 5A). We expect similar diversity in rocky planets.
buildup of small grains) or possibly gravita-
tional collapse (the rapid coagulation of a large Briceño, C., Vivas, A.K., Calvet, N., Hartmann, L., Pacheco,
number of grains). R., Herrera, D., Romero, L., Berlind, P., Sánchez, G., Sny-
3. Planetesimals grow to Moon- to Mars-sized der, J.A., and Andrews, P. (2001) The CIDA-QUEST large-
scale survey of Orion OB1: evidence for rapid disk dissi-
planetary embryos in a process called “oli-
pation in a dispersed stellar population. Science 291, 93–96.
garchic growth.” Larger bodies have increas- Canup, R.M. and Asphaug, E. (2001) Origin of the Moon
ing mass (resulting in greater gravity) and sur- in a giant impact near the end of the Earth’s formation.
face area (resulting in more collisions), all of Nature 412, 708–712.
which leads to very rapid, runaway growth. Chambers, J.E. (2004) Planetary accretion in the inner So-
At the end of this stage, roughly 100 planetary lar System. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 223, 241–252.
embryos exist in the inner Solar System. Drake, M.J. and Righter, K. (2002) Determining the com-
4. Rocky planets form from collisions among position of the Earth. Nature 416, 39–44.
Lunine, J.I., Chambers, J., Morbidelli, A., and Leshin, L.A.
planetary embryos. For two planetary em-
(2003) The origin of water on Mars. Icarus 165, 1–8.
bryos to collide, one or both must increase its Morbidelli, A., Chambers, J., Lunine, J.I., Petit, J.M.,
eccentricity via gravitational interactions with Robert, F.M., Valsecchi, G.B., and Cyr, K.E. (2000)
other embryos or with the already-formed gi- Source regions and timescales for the delivery of water
ant planets (resonances with Jupiter are par- to the Earth. Meteoritics Planet. Sci. 35, 1309–1320.
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Raymond, S.N., Quinn, T., and Lunine, J.I. (2004) Making requires a relatively massive circumstellar disk
other earths: dynamical simulations of terrestrial planet and has trouble forming planets smaller than
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Giant Planet Formation and Migration Boss, A.P. (1997) Giant planet formation by gravitational
Giant planets are thought to form much more instability. Science 276, 1836–1839.
Boss, A.P. (2002) Formation of gas and ice giant planets.
quickly than rocky planets. Two mechanisms for Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 202, 513–523.
the formation of gas giant planets have been pro- Mayer, L., Quinn, T., Wadsley, J., and Stadel, J. (2002) For-
posed: a bottom-up model (“core-accretion”) and mation of giant planets by fragmentation of protoplan-
a top-down one (“fragmentation” or “disk insta- etary disks. Science 298, 1756–1759.
bility”). Both are reviewed in Boss (2002). Pollack, J.B., Hubickyj, O., Bodenheimer, P., Lissauer, J.J.,
The orbit of a giant planet may change signif- Podolak, M., and Greenzweig, Y. (1996) Formation of
icantly in its lifetime, usually moving inward to- the giant planets by concurrent accretion of solids and
gas. Icarus 124, 62–85.
ward the host star, because of gravitational
torques (see Orbital migration of giant planets, be-
low) within the gas disk. Additional orbital mi-
Orbital migration of giant planets
gration may occur after the dissipation of the gas
disk because of interactions with remnant plan- The first extrasolar planet discovered around a
etesimals. Indeed, the dynamical structure of the main sequence star was a “hot Jupiter,” a giant
Kuiper Belt suggests that this may have occurred (half Jupiter-mass) planet orbiting its host star at
in the Solar System. a distance of 0.05 AU (Mayor and Queloz, 1995).
The formation of giant planets is thought to be
impossible so close to a star, where the tempera-
Giant planet formation (bottom-up model) ture is very high and few solids can condense. Lin
In one model, a roughly 10 Earth-mass core et al. (1996) proposed that the planet may have
forms in the outer planetary region (past formed farther out in the disk and migrated in-
roughly 5 AU) via accretion of planetary em- ward via gravitational torques with the disk. A
bryos. The gravity of the core is sufficient to trap planet embedded in a massive gaseous disk feels
the local cold gas directly from the nebula, but torques from the gas orbiting both inside and out-
this process is slow because the core must radi- side its orbit. The outer gas orbits the star more
ate away the heat of accretion. Gas becomes slowly than the planet and, therefore, tends to
trapped slowly over a long period (often sev- slow the planet’s orbit and cause its orbit to spi-
eral Ma) until the gas envelope mass equals the ral inward. Conversely, the inner gas orbits more
core mass, and the process becomes runaway. quickly and causes the planet’s orbit to spiral out-
The planet may subsequently accrete hundreds ward. It has been shown that the outer torque is
of Earth masses of gas in only a few thousand usually (but not always) the stronger of the two,
years and develop into a gas giant. If the which means that this effect causes an inward mi-
buildup phase is too long, however, the gas disk gration of the planet.
will have dissipated before the onset of run-
away accretion, and the planet will resemble D’Angelo, G., Kley, W., and Henning, T. (2003) Orbital
Uranus and Neptune. migration and mass accretion of protoplanets in three-
dimensional global computations with nested grids. As-
trophys. J. 586, 540–561.
Giant planet formation (top-down model) Gomes, R., Levison, H.F., Tsiganis, K., and Morbidelli, A.
(2005) Origin of the cataclysmic Late Heavy Bombard-
In the fragmentation scenario, giant planets ment period of the terrestrial planets. Nature 435,
form directly from the protoplanetary disk via 466–469.
a gravitational instability (Boss, 1997), which Levison, H.F. and Morbidelli, A. (2003) The formation of
causes a patch of gas and dust to collapse under the Kuiper belt by the outward transport of bodies dur-
its own gravity and form a massive planet. The ing Neptune’s migration. Nature 426, 419–421.
Lin, D.N.C., Bodenheimer, P., and Richardson, D.C.
conditions for disk instability involve a balance (1996) Orbital migration of the planetary companion of
of higher local density and higher local tempera- 51 Pegasi to its present location. Nature 380, 606–607.
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Raymond, S.N., Mandell, A.M., and Sigurdsson, S. (2006) System asteroids with elliptical orbits between
Exotic Earths: Forming habitable worlds with giant Saturn and Uranus. Based on composition and
planet migration. Science 313, 1413–1416. comparisons to comets, it is thought that Cen-
taurs may have originated in the Kuiper Belt and
2B. Asteroids, Comets, and Impacts traveled toward the inner Solar System.
on Earth (VC)
Bevan, A. and de Laeter, J. (2002) Meteorites: A Journey
Asteroids and comets are leftovers from the Through Space and Time, Smithsonion Institution Press,
formation of the Solar System and, as such, can Washington, DC.
provide clues toward understanding the forma- Bottke, W.F., Jedicke, R., Morbidelli. A., Petit, J.-M., and
Gladman, B. (2000) Understanding the distribution of
tion of planetary systems. They may also have
near-Earth asteroids. Science 288, 2190–2194.
been a source of organic molecules on the early Wetherill, G.W. and Chapman, C.R. (1988) Asteroids and
Earth. This section begins with an overview of as- meteorites. In Meteorites and the Early Solar System,
teroids, comets, and meteorites and ends with a edited by J.F. Kerridge and M.S. Matthews, University
discussion of their specific importance for astro- of Arizona Press, Tucson, pp. 35–67.
biology.
Comets
Asteroids
Like asteroids, comets are leftover planetesi-
The asteroid belt lies between the orbits of mals from the primordial solar nebula. Comets,
Mars and Jupiter, with most asteroids residing in however, occupy a different region in the Solar
the main asteroid belt, between 2.1 and 3.3 AU System and are physically and compositionally
from the Sun. Asteroids can be thought of as ir- diverse enough to be classified as a distinct
regular-shaped, planetesimal-sized (1 km) bod- group. Comets, upon entering the inner Solar Sys-
ies composed of accreted material not incorpo- tem, display a coma and tail. They possess a core
rated into the planets. or nucleus composed of volatiles (materials eas-
Asteroid classes are based on composition, a ily converted to gas), metals, and dust; the release
property strongly correlated with location in the of gas and dust caused by heating as the comet
Solar System. The most common asteroids can be approaches the Sun forms a coma, or mini-at-
separated into four classes: M, S, C, and P. Inner mosphere, around the nucleus, as well as a tail,
main belt asteroids (between 2.1 and 2.8 AU) are material driven off the comet by solar radiation
typically metallic (M type)—consistent with Ni- or magnetic fields. Volatile components primar-
Fe composition and moderate albedo (reflectiv- ily include ices (water, carbon dioxide, ammonia,
ity)—or silicaceous (S type)—consistent with etc.), while nonvolatile components include mi-
olivine, pyroxene, and metals composition and cron-size aggregates of silicates, carbonates, and
moderate albedo. Outer main belt asteroids (be- other minerals. These materials suggest that
tween 2.5 and 3.3 AU) are mostly carbonaceous comets may be the most primitive bodies in the
(C type)—hydrated minerals with up to 20% Solar System.
water by mass—and thought to be related to There are two main reservoirs of comets: the
carbonaceous chondrite meteorites. P-type aster- Oort Cloud and the Kuiper Belt. Two cometary
oids—apparently lacking hydrated minerals— groups are associated with these regions: ecliptic
are also found in the outer belt. Both C and P or short-period comets and nearly isotropic or
types have low albedo. long-period comets. Short-period comets have or-
In addition to the main belt asteroids, three bital periods of less than 200 years and relatively
other asteroid populations are known: near-Earth small orbital inclinations (they lie mainly in the
asteroids, Trojans, and Centaurs. Near-Earth as- plane of the planets, see Sec. 2A) and are associ-
teroids approach Earth’s orbit and pose the pri- ated with the Kuiper Belt. Long-period comets
mary impact threat to Earth. Two groups of as- have orbital periods greater than 200 years, can
teroids called Trojans orbit the Sun at the same come from any direction in the sky (they have
distance as Jupiter, roughly 60° ahead of and be- random inclinations), and are sourced from the
hind the planet. Trojans commonly include as- Oort Cloud.
teroids of types P and D—the latter being simi- The Kuiper Belt (including the so-called “scat-
lar to P, but redder. Centaurs are outer Solar tered disk”) extends for several hundred AU be-
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 753

yond Neptune’s orbit and may contain 109–1010 or a moon. “Irons” are composed of iron-nickel
comets [called Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) or compounds and probably originate from M-type
trans-neptunian objects]. Most KBOs lie inside 50 asteroids. “Stony-irons” have approximately
AU and have inclinations between 0 and 30°. Un- equal amounts of both silicates and metal, and
til recently, Pluto, at 2,300 km in diameter, was may originate in S-type asteroids (or the similar
the largest known KBO. Its orbit crosses that of A-type with high olivine content).
Neptune but avoids close encounters because it Stones are subdivided into chondrites and
is in a 2:3 orbital resonance with Neptune (see achondrites. Chondrites contain “chondrules,”
Sec. 2A for a definition of resonance). Six other tiny silicate or metal droplets formed during the
objects larger than 1,000 km have been observed. period of planetary accretion; achondrites do not
Sizing of the recently discovered 2003 UB313 has contain silicate or metal droplets. Chondrites can
proved problematic, but estimates have it at least be further subdivided into three classes: ordinary,
as large as Pluto. enstatite, and carbonaceous. Enstatite chondrites
The Oort Cloud occupies a spherical domain contain enstatite—a magnesium silicate min-
roughly 103–105 AU from the Sun and may con- eral—and constitute only about 1% of all mete-
tain 1012 comets that, in total, equal 5 Earth orites. Carbonaceous chondrites contain unusu-
masses. Small icy bodies formed in the outer So- ally high amounts of hydrocarbons and are,
lar System, comets were gravitationally scattered therefore, the most interesting astrobiologically.
by the giant planets (but see Sec. 7B on comets Isotopic fractionation indicates that the hydro-
for details of the Stardust mission). The orbits of carbons were formed in the ISM and subse-
these comets, only loosely bound to the Sun, were quently underwent aqueous alteration in the so-
perturbed by encounters with nearby stars, mol- lar nebula and planetesimals. Roughly 80% of
ecular clouds, and the galactic tidal field. Their meteorites can be divided into high- and low-iron
orbital orientations were thus randomized into ordinary chondrites (in terms of falls). Because
the Oort “Cloud.” chondrites have not been subjected to melting or
igneous differentiation, they preserve informa-
Brownlee, D.E. (2003) Comets. In Treatise on Geochemistry, tion about early Solar System processes such as
Vol. 1: Meteorites, Comets, and Planets, edited by A.M. condensation, evaporation, fractionation, and
Davis (executive editors H.D. Holland and K.K.
Turekian), Elsevier-Pergamon, Amsterdam, pp. 663–
mixing.
688.
Krot, A.N., Keil, K., Goodrich, C.A., Scott, E.R.D., and
Levison, H.F. and Morbidelli, A. (2003) The formation of
Weisberg, M.K. (2003) Classification of meteorites. In
the Kuiper belt by the outward transport of bodies dur-
Treatise on Geochemistry, Vol. 1: Meteorites, Comets, and
ing Neptune’s migration. Nature 426, 419–421.
Planets, edited by A.M. Davis (executive editors H.D.
Luu, J.X. and Jewitt, D.C. (2002) Kuiper Belt objects: relics
Holland and K.K. Turekian), Elsevier-Pergamon, Ams-
from the accretion disk of the Sun. Annu. Rev. Astron.
terdam, pp. 83–128.
Astrophys. 40, 63–101.
McSween, H.Y., Jr. (1999) Meteorites and Their Parent Plan-
Stern, A. (2003) The evolution of comets in the Oort Cloud
ets, 2nd ed., Cambridge University Press, Cambridge,
and Kuiper Belt. Nature 424, 639–642.
UK.

Meteorites Earth Impacts and Delivery of Organics


A meteorite is defined as an extraterrean (ex- Geologic and astronomic evidence suggests
traterrestrial) body that strikes Earth’s surface. It that meteorite impacts were significant to the evo-
is generally accepted that the vast majority of me- lution of life on Earth. Early impacts may have
teorites are fragments of asteroids. The composi- delivered the large quantities of organic mole-
tional and physical characteristics of meteorites cules necessary for life. Large impacts have
provide clues to their origin as well as the com- caused major extinction events (see Sec. 4D) and
position of other objects in the Solar System. may have delayed the origin of life.
The most general scheme classifies meteorites
into three categories: stones, irons, and stony-
Earth impacts
irons. “Stones” are composed primarily of silicate
minerals. Their composition suggests that they Earth formed via accretion, the collisional
have undergone partial or complete melting buildup of many small bodies into a larger one
within a large differentiated body such as a planet (see Sec. 2A for details), which can include mas-
754 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

sive events such as the Mars-sized impactor that tinctions, and impact events in that they all show
is thought to have formed the Moon. Evidence re- a regular periodicity of 30 million years. Rea-
mains for post-accretionary impacts on the Moon, sons for this remain unclear but may involve the
primarily in the form of geochemical data from Sun’s orbital period about the galactic center
moon rocks brought back by the Apollo and (Steel, 1997).
Russian Luna missions. The Late Heavy Bom-
bardment (LHB) period between 4.1 and 3.8 bil- Comets and meteorites as sources
lions of years ago (Ga) was the most intense bom- of organic compounds
bardment Earth suffered after its formation.
Evidence for this comes from lunar samples and A variety of organic species have been identi-
meteorites. Ages obtained from lunar impact fied in meteorites and comets. The origin of or-
melts and highland samples all cluster around the ganic materials found in meteorites is attributed
same age, 3.9 Ga, which suggests that the rate to processes that involve interstellar, nebular, and
of impacts was much higher at this time. What planetary abiotic syntheses. They are not thought
caused the LHB is uncertain, but a recent theory to have links to biology, in spite of the fact that
ties the LHB to perturbation of KBOs with the some species display identical properties to ter-
outward migration of Neptune (Gomes et al., rean biomolecules (Pizzarello, 2004). Similar or-
2005). ganics are found in comets. Perhaps most inter-
The impact rate on the Earth has been, to some esting are the volatile prebiotic molecules
extent, in a steady state since the end of the LHB: detected in cometary comas, including water
roughly 20,000 tons of extraterrean material im- (H2O), carbon monoxide/dioxide (CO/CO2),
pact Earth each year. Impact frequency is a func- formaldehyde (H2CO), nitrogen (N2), hydrogen
tion of impactor size: extinction-level collisions cyanide (HCN), hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and
with large bodies are rare, while small body col- methane (CH4). The formation of organic
lisions occur constantly. An impactor larger than volatiles is thought to require long periods (109
a certain size (thought to be roughly 5 km, de- years) and involve both radiation-induced
pending on composition, impact speed, and im- processes and hot atom chemistry (Kissel et al.,
pact location) would cause worldwide devasta- 1997). Models estimate that the early Earth ac-
tion. For this reason, there is an endeavor creted 106–107 kg/year of organics from comets
underway (the “Spaceguard Goal”) to find 90% (Chyba et al., 1990) and 8  104 kg/year from
of all near-Earth objects larger than 1 km. Ex- carbonaceous chondrites (Pizzarello, 2004). These
tinction-level impacts with 1-km objects are estimates do not take into account inputs from
thought to occur roughly once every 50–100 mil- other sources of extraterrean organics such as in-
lion years. The most recent extinction-level im- terplanetary dust particles, interstellar dust, and
pact was the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) impact 65 other meteor types.
millions of years ago (Ma). The K-T impact in-
volved a 10-km object that, when it struck the Chyba, C.F., Thomas, P.J., Brookshaw, L., and Sagan, C.
Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, released 108 (1990) Cometary delivery of organic molecules to the
megatons of energy and created a crater (Chicx- early Earth. Science 249, 366–373.
ulub) 180–300 km in size. This impact resulted in Clark, B.C., Baker, A.L., Cheng, A.F., Clemett, S.J., McKay,
a global catastrophe that led to the extinction of D., McSween, H.Y., Pieters, C.M., Thomas, P., and
Zolensky, M. (1999) Survival of life on asteroids, comets
the dinosaurs as well as a host of environmental
and other small bodies. Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 29,
problems (wildfires, changes in atmospheric and 521–545.
ocean chemistry, short-term climatic changes as Gomes, R., Levison, H.F., Tsiganis, K., and Morbidelli, A.
a result of large quantities of dust ejected into the (2005) Origin of the cataclysmic Late Heavy Bombard-
atmosphere, generation of gigantic tsunamis). ment period of the terrestrial planets. Nature 435,
Other mass extinction events that may have been 466–469.
caused by large impacts occurred around 365 Huebner, W.F. and Boice, D.C. (1997) Polymers and other
macromolecules in comets. In Comets and the Origin and
Ma (Frasnian/Famennian Boundary) and 250
Evolution of Life, edited by P.J. Thomas, C.F. Chyba, and
Ma (Permian-Triassic boundary); both of these C.P. McKay, Springer-Verlag, New York, pp. 111–129.
events resulted in the extinction of 70% of ocean Kissel, J., Krueger, F.R., and Roessler, K. (1997) Organic
and land species. There seems to be a correlation chemistry in comets from remote and in situ observa-
in occurrence among geologic events, mass ex- tions. In Comets and the Origin and Evolution of Life,
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 755

edited by P.J. Thomas, C.F. Chyba, and C.P. McKay, Marshak, S. (2004) Essentials of Geology: Portrait of Earth,
Springer-Verlag, New York, pp. 69–109. W.W. Norton and Co., New York.
McKay, C.P. (1997) Life in comets. In Comets and the Ori- Plummer, C.C., McGeary, D., and Carlson, D. (2002) Phys-
gin and Evolution of Life, edited by P.J. Thomas, C.F. ical Geology, 9th ed., McGraw Hill, New York.
Chyba, and C.P. McKay, Springer-Verlag, New York,
pp. 273–282.
Morrison, D. (1997) The contemporary hazard of Rocks and Minerals
cometary impacts. In Comets and the Origin and Evolu-
Minerals and rocks are different. A mineral oc-
tion of Life, edited by P.J. Thomas, C.F. Chyba, and C.P.
McKay, Springer-Verlag, New York, pp. 243–258.
curs naturally. It is inorganic, homogeneous, and
Pizzarello, S. (2004) Chemical evolution and meteorites: solid with a definite chemical composition and an
an update. Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 34, 25–34. ordered atomic arrangement. Rocks are com-
Steel, D. (1997) Cometary impacts on the biosphere. In posed of minerals and/or organic material. Three
Comets and the Origin and Evolution of Life, edited by P.J. main rock types exist on Earth: sedimentary, ig-
Thomas, C.F. Chyba, and C.P. McKay, Springer-Verlag, neous, and metamorphic. Sedimentary rocks
New York, pp. 209–242. form either by chemical precipitation or the grad-
ual settling of materials (fragments of older rocks
2C. Introduction to Geology (RS, MC) and marine shells) over time. The resulting sedi-
ments become lithified (made into solid rock in-
Physical Geology and Earth stead of particles) through the process of com-
Geology is the study of Earth, the processes paction as new material forms on top and gravity
that shape it, and the composition, structure, and presses the particles together. Organisms can be-
physical properties that characterize it. When the come fossilized when the sediment turns to stone.
Solar System formed, Earth, along with three Common sedimentary rocks include limestone,
other rocky planets, accreted solid rock, which shale, conglomerate, and sandstone.
later differentiated into layers. Earth is composed Igneous rocks form when molten (liquid) rock
of three primary layers: core, mantle, and crust. cools to the point of solidification. This can hap-
The core consists of Fe and Ni, with a solid cen- pen above ground (from lava flows, as in the for-
ter and a liquid outer shell. The mantle is com- mation of basalt) or below (in magma chambers,
posed primarily of Fe, Mg, Si, and O. as in the formation of granite). Metamorphic
Heat is transferred from the core to the crust rocks begin as sedimentary or igneous rocks, but
through a mantle convection system. Hotter rock their properties change as a result of high tem-
moves toward the outer edges of Earth, where it peratures and pressures deep below the surface
cools and sinks back down toward the core. The of Earth. Common metamorphic rocks include
crust is brittle and broken up into plates that move quartzite, marble, and gneiss.
over the surface of Earth, driven by mantle con-
Boggs, S. (2000) Principles of Sedimentology and Stratigra-
vection. Two types of crust exist—oceanic and con- phy, 3rd ed., Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, NJ.
tinental—each of which exhibits different proper- Klein, C. (2001) Manual of Mineral Science, 22nd ed., John
ties and behave differently at plate boundaries. Wiley and Sons, New York.
Three different types of interactions can occur:
the plates can move in divergent directions
Redox Geochemistry
(spreading center), they can converge (subduc-
tion zones or orogenic belts), or they can move There are two broad classes of chemical reac-
parallel to one another (strike-slip). At spreading tions—reactions that transfer protons between re-
centers, hot mantle wells up and forms new crust actants (defined as “acid-base” reactions) and re-
at midocean ridges. When two oceanic plates or actions that transfer electrons between reactants
an oceanic plate and a continental plate collide, (defined as “redox” reactions). In a redox reac-
the denser oceanic plate is subducted (pulled un- tion, the reactant that gains an electron is “re-
der), which results in a trench (e.g., the Marianas duced,” while the reactant that loses an electron
Trench). When two continental plates collide, has been “oxidized.” Redox reactions are coupled
mountains form (e.g., the Himalayas). If two by definition; the only way for one molecule to
plates are sliding past one another, faults form be oxidized is for another molecule to be reduced.
and cause earthquakes (e.g., the San Andreas Another important definition is the “oxidation
Fault system). state” of an element. The oxidation states possi-
756 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

ble for an element are determined by fundamen- Geologic Time and the Geologic Record
tal physics, but the oxidation state in which that
Geologic time can be measured on a relative or
element exists at a given time is determined by
absolute scale. The relative scale (Fig. 2.2) is derived
environment. For example, quantum mechanics
from the layering of rock sequences and the evo-
dictates that iron (Fe) can exist as Fe0, Fe2, or
lution of life. Index fossils—from widespread life
Fe3, which means that iron will readily donate
forms that existed for limited periods of time—can
none, two, or three of its electrons, depending on
be used as a guide to the relative ages of the rocks
what it encounters in a chemical reaction. For in-
in which they are preserved. The eons, eras, and
stance, iron rusts [4Fe(OH)2  O2  2Fe2O3 
periods of the scale reflect specific regimes in the
4H2O] when it is oxidized from the Fe2 oxida-
history of life. Ammonites, for example, were com-
tion state to the Fe3 oxidation state. A major con-
mon during the Mesozoic Era (251–65 Ma) but
fusion is that the terms “oxidized/oxidizing/ox-
went extinct during the K-T extinction event (65
idant” need not have anything to do with the
Ma) at the same time as the dinosaurs.
element oxygen; FeCl2  CeCl4  FeCl3  CeCl3
The absolute or radiometric time scale is based on
is a redox reaction in which FeCl2 (the “reducing
the natural radioactive properties of chemical ele-
agent” or “reductant”) is oxidized by CeCl4 (the
ments found in some rocks on Earth. Radiometric
“oxidizing agent” or “oxidant”). In exchange for
dating utilizes the instability of certain atoms and iso-
oxidizing the iron from Fe2 to Fe3, the cerium
topes that decay to more stable elements over time.
is reduced in oxidation state from Ce4 to Ce3.
The time it takes for half the amount of a radioactive
Redox reactions are exploited by biology (Sec.
element to degrade to the more stable form is called
6B) but are also a very important part of inter-
its “half-life.” Using the half-life, it is possible to cal-
preting the paleo-environment. Examining the
culate the age of a rock based on the proportions of
oxidation state of elements in the geologic
radioactive elements it contains. The geologic time
record helps us infer the conditions under
scale of Earth takes into account radiometric age dat-
which a rock formed. For example, lithified soils
ing of appropriate rocks and yields a chronology for
(“paleosols”) older than 2.4 Ga are generally
the entire 4.6 Ga of Earth history.
free of iron, while lithified soils younger than
2.5 Ga are rich in iron, but only iron that is in Bottjer, D.J., Etter, W., Hagadorn, J.W., and Tang, C.M.
the Fe3 oxidation state. In the lab, we notice (2001) Exceptional Fossil Preservation, Columbia Univer-
that Fe2 is soluble in water, but Fe3 is not. sity Press, New York.
The standard interpretation of these two facts is Stanley, S.M. (1992) Exploring the Earth Through Time,
that ancient rainwater did not contain dissolved W.H. Freeman, Sunderland, MA.
oxygen and, hence, would have leeched soils of
soluble Fe2. Oxygenated rainwater (i.e., rain- 2D. Early Earth Environments (SG)
water containing dissolved O2) would oxidize
There have been four eons in Earth’s history
iron to the insoluble Fe3 oxidation state and
(Fig. 2.2): the Hadean, which spans the time be-
trap the iron in the soil. This geochemical in-
fore any of the rocks we see today were formed;
terpretation is one of the arguments for a dra-
the Archean, marked by deposits laid down in
matic change in the overall oxidation state of
the absence of free O2 in the atmosphere; the Pro-
the atmosphere approximately 2.4 Ga (Sec. 2D).
terozoic, during which aerobic and multicellular
Thus, the geochemistry of Fe and other (espe-
life developed; and the Phanerozoic, the most re-
cially rare earth) elements in well-preserved
cent eon, in which dinosaurs, mammals, and
rocks can constrain the “redox state” of entire
eventually humans inhabited the planet. Here we
reservoirs such as the atmosphere and ocean. In
focus on the Hadean and Archean, which cover
this context, environments are said to be “re-
the first 2 billion years of Earth’s 4.6 Ga history.
ducing” or “oxidizing.” A reducing environ-
ment has an excess of available reductants (usu- Kasting, J.F. and Catling, D. (2003) Evolution of a habit-
ally hydrogen), while an oxidizing environment able planet. Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 41, 429–463.
has an excess of available oxidants (generally
oxygen). Formation of the Continents, Atmosphere,
and Oceans
Rye, R. and Holland, H.D. (1998) Paleosols and the evo-
lution of atmospheric oxygen: a critical review. Am. J. According to radiometric age dating of mete-
Sci. 298, 621–672. orites and the Moon, Earth reached a large frac-
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 757

FIG. 2.2. Geologic time scale (Earth and Mars).


758 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

tion of its final size by about 4.5 Ga. The moon from material delivered from colder parts of the
formed by 4.44 Ga via the impact of a Mars- Solar System (further away from the Sun). There
sized object with the proto-Earth. Although the are two possible sources for this volatile-rich ma-
bombardment of Earth continued, the vast ma- terial: the asteroid and cometary regions. Car-
jority of Earth’s mass had been accreted by this bonaceous chondrite meteorites sourced from C-
time. type asteroids in the outer asteroid belt (2.5–3.3
While the formation of the Earth-Moon system AU) have D/H (i.e., deuterium/hydrogen or
is fairly well understood, the formation of Earth’s 2H/1H) ratios similar to Earth’s oceans. Models

crust, oceans, and atmosphere is not nearly as show that Earth could have received its current
well constrained. Almost all of the materials that volatile inventory via incorporation of planetesi-
composed the original crust have since been de- mals formed in the outer Solar System and grav-
stroyed through subduction or giant impacts; itationally perturbed inward (Morbidelli et al.,
however, there is reason to believe that the oceans 2000; Raymond et al., 2004). Comets have high
and some crust were in place by 4.44 Ga. Debates concentrations of volatiles, which can explain the
center upon how quickly the crust built up and isotopic composition of the noble gases on the
what type of plate tectonics operated during the rocky planets but not the D/H ratios.
early stages of crustal evolution. These unknowns A thick, steam-laden atmosphere probably re-
would have had significant effects on the global sulted from the high flux of volatiles to Earth’s
cycling of many elements important to life (i.e., surface via impacts and the increased heat asso-
C). If this recycling of elements is important for ciated with those impacts. There is evidence for
habitability, as it seems it was on the early Earth, the rapid escape of H atoms during a time when
then we need to understand how Earth’s system the atmosphere was extremely H2O and H2 rich.
of plate tectonics came into being. The impor- Loss of volatiles from the atmosphere was likely
tance of this can be seen by examining our neigh- larger during this time period than at any other
bor planets, Mars and Venus. time in Earth’s history. This is due to the escape
Current thought indicates that Mars is geolog- of H and “impact weathering,” the loss associ-
ically inactive. Consequently, recycling of bio-es- ated with ejection of matter from the planet dur-
sential elements such as C, N, O, and P is very ing large impacts.
limited. Venus, on the other hand, has extensive As accretion slowed, the surface of Earth
geologic activity, but it is too rapid and violent to cooled. This would have caused atmospheric
be conducive to life as we know it. Venus seems steam to rain out and form oceans. It should be
to build up interior pressure until it is all released noted that these oceans may have been vaporized
at once in a giant magma flow that completely by large impacts but would have continued to
covers the planet and forms a new surface. Earth form and reform until the impacts died down. Ra-
has a steady, continuous release of mantle fluids diometric age dating of cratered surfaces on the
and gases. The difference results from an abun- Moon suggests that Earth would have continued
dance of water in Earth’s crust, which reduces to receive a significant number of impacts by
viscosity and allows for the efficient transfer of 100-km-sized objects until at least 3.85 Ga.
heat from the interior by way of plate tectonics.
One of the main problems that the next genera- Canup, R.M. and Asphaug, E. (2001) Origin of the Moon
tion of astrobiologists will face will be to bridge in a giant impact near the end of the Earth’s formation.
Nature 412, 708–712.
the gap between models of planetary accretion
Drake, M.J. and Righter, K. (2002) Determining the com-
and formation and the initiation of geologic ac- position of the Earth. Nature 416, 39–44.
tivity (or lack thereof) on rocky planets. Morbidelli, A., Chambers, J., Lunine, J.I., Petit, J.M.,
The key problem to understanding how Earth Robert, F.M., Valsecchi, G.B., and Cyr, K.E. (2000)
formed a hydrosphere and an atmosphere has to Source regions and timescales for the delivery of water
do with the way in which volatiles were initially to the Earth. Meteoritics Planet. Sci. 35, 1309–1320.
delivered to Earth. As described in Sec. 2A, Raymond, S.N., Quinn, T., and Lunine, J.I. (2004) Making
other earths: dynamical simulations of terrestrial planet
Earth’s “building blocks” were likely completely
formation and water delivery. Icarus 168, 1–17.
dry simply because temperatures were too high Wilde, S., Valley, J., Peck, W., and Graham, C. (2001) Ev-
for water to condense or form hydrated minerals idence from detrital zircons for the existence of conti-
(but see Drake and Righter, 2002, for a different nental crust and oceans on the Earth at 4.4 Gyr ago. Na-
opinion). Thus, Earth’s volatiles had to have come ture 409, 175–178.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 759

Earth’s Oldest Sedimentary Rocks? Some Like It Hot . . .


The Oldest Evidence of Life?
Three and a half billion years ago, Earth was
Sedimentary rocks can tell us many things likely extremely hot. Recent measurements
about the surface chemistry and biology of Earth (Knauth and Lowe, 2003) of oxygen isotopes in
at the time of deposition. The earliest known sed- cherts (very hard sedimentary rocks) are consis-
imentary rocks have been dated to 3.85 Ga. The tent with a surface temperature of 55–85°C at
lack of sediments prior to this time could be as- 3.5–3.2 Ga. This is the temperature range within
cribed to a global resurfacing event (such as on which heat-loving organisms, “thermophiles,”
Venus), a lack of continental crust prior to that proliferate. This early hot environment may ex-
time, or the elimination of earlier sediments plain why most organisms near the base of the
through processes such as subduction and meta- tree of life (see Sec. 6A) are thermophilic; they
morphosis. were the only organisms capable of thriving.
Earth’s oldest putative sedimentary rocks can This hot early Earth hypothesis is quite contro-
be found in the Akilia Island Banded Iron For- versial. Because the sun was fainter in the Archean
mation (BIF) from Greenland, dated to at least (see Sec. 2E), a massive CO2/CH4 greenhouse forc-
3.85 Ga (McGregor and Mason, 1977). BIFs are a ing would have been required to keep the Earth
type of sedimentary deposit that contains alter- above 50°C (Pavlov et al., 2000). The temperature
nating Fe-rich and Si-rich layers and were mostly evolution of the Earth proposed by Knauth and
formed prior to 1.8 Ga (the significance of their Lowe (2003) is also inconsistent with the glacial
temporal distribution is discussed below). record described in the next section. Alternate ex-
The Akilia Island BIF is best known for har- planations for the evolution of oxygen isotopes
boring the oldest reported indicators of biologi- have been proposed (Land, 1995) but have their
cal activity on Earth (Mojzsis et al., 1996): iso- own problems. Future work on interpreting this
topically light carbon consistent with the isotopic signal is a crucial area of research in astrobiology,
fractionation found in photosynthetic organisms. as temperature has a profound effect on a variety
It should be noted, however, that the age and bi- of other systems at the Earth’s surface.
ological fractionation attributed to the Akilia Is-
land formation have been questioned (Fedo and Knauth, L.P. and Lowe, D.R. (2003) High Archean climatic
Whitehouse, 2002; van Zuilen et al., 2002). temperature inferred from oxygen isotope geochem-
istry of cherts in the 3.5 Ga Swaziland Supergroup,
South Africa. GSA Bull. 115, 566–580.
Brasier, M.D., Green, O.R., Jephcoat, A.P., Kleppe, A.K., Land, L.S. (1995) Comment on “Oxygen and carbon iso-
van Kranendonk, M., Lindsay, J.F., Steele, A., and topic composition of Ordovician brachiopods: implica-
Grassineau, N. (2002) Questioning the evidence for tions for coeval seawater” by Qing H. and Veizer J.
Earth’s oldest fossils. Nature 416, 76–81. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 59, 2843–2844.
Fedo, C.M. and Whitehouse, M.J. (2002) Metasomatic ori- Pavlov, A.A., Kasting, J.F., Brown, L.L., Rages, K.A., and
gin of quartz-pyroxene rock, Akilia, Greenland, and im- Freedman, R. (2000) Greenhouse warming by CH4 in
plications for Earth’s earliest life. Science 296, 1448–1452. the atmosphere of early Earth. J. Geophys. Res. 105,
McGregor, V.R. and Mason, B. (1977) Petrogenesis and 11981–11990.
geochemistry of metabasaltic and metasedimentary en-
claves in the Amitsoq gneisses, West Greenland. Amer-
ican Mineralogist 62, 887–904. . . . Others Like It Cold
Mojzsis, S.J., Arrhenius, G., McKeegan, K.D., Harrison,
Twice in its history, Earth was likely extremely
T.M., Nutman, A.P., and Friend, C.R.L. (1996) Evidence
for life on Earth before 3,800 million years ago. Nature cold. There is evidence for tropical glaciers at
384, 55–59. 2.4 Ga and between 0.7 and 0.5 Ga (Evans et al.,
Mojzsis, S., Harrison, M., and Pidgeon, R. (2001) Oxy- 1997; Hoffman et al., 1998). [In the last ice age,
gen-isotope evidence from ancient zircons for liquid glaciers only advanced as far south as New York
water at the Earth’s surface 4,300 Myr ago. Nature 409, City (40°N latitude)]. The global extent of the
178–181. glaciation during these time periods has led some
Schopf, J.W. (1993) Microfossils of the early Archean Apex
to call them “Snowball Earth” episodes, since
Chert—new evidence of the antiquity of life. Science
260, 640–646. Earth would have resembled a gigantic snowball
van Zuilen, M.A., Lepland, A., and Arrhenius, G. (2002) (Hoffman et al., 1998).
Reassessing the evidence for the earliest traces of life. We have a fairly good understanding of how a
Nature 418, 627–630. Snowball Earth event would have been possible.
760 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

If CO2 levels were decreased enough, glaciers cons dated at 4.4 Ga (Mojzsis et al., 2001; Wilde
would have started to advance from the poles. The et al., 2001), have an isotopic composition consis-
growth of these glaciers would have led to further tent with the presence of liquid water at the time
cooling; glaciers have a high albedo (fractional re- they formed. The earliest reported sedimentary de-
flectance), and their growth would have reflected posits were discussed above; these rocks are at least
more of the Sun’s energy back into space. Thus, 3.85 Ga (McGregor and Mason, 1977). It is also ex-
Earth would have cooled even further in a self-re- tremely important to know by what time life had
inforcing trend until glaciers covered the whole evolved; the earliest chemical signs of life are in
planet (Harland, 1965; Kirschvink, 1992). rocks dated at 3.8 Ga (Mojzsis et al., 1996; Rosing,
On modern Earth, CO2 outgassing by volcanoes 1999), and most accept evidence that life was
is roughly balanced by the removal of CO2 through around by 3.5–3.2 Ga (see Secs. 4D and E). Per-
weathering of silicate minerals on Earth’s conti- haps the greatest debate has been waged over the
nents (Sec. 2E). During a Snowball Earth event, date of the earliest fossils. The claim that
however, the oceans would have been covered “cyanobacteria-like” fossils have been discovered
with ice, very little water would have evaporated, in Australian rocks that are 3.5 billion years old
and rainfall would have been greatly decreased. (Schopf, 1993) is heavily disputed (Brasier et al.,
Under these conditions, weathering would have 2002) (see Sec. 4E). The last “firsts” in the Archean
diminished severely so that removal of CO2 from primarily involve the final deposits before the rise
the atmosphere would have been almost nonexis- of O2 (and some would assert the rise of oxygen-
tent, and CO2 levels would have built up to ex- producing photosynthesis) (see Sec. 2E).
tremely high levels. Since CO2 is a greenhouse gas,
this build-up would eventually have been enough Bowring, S.A. and Williams, I.S. (1999) Priscoan (4.00–4.03
to overcome the cooling caused by the reflectivity Ga) orthogneisses from northwestern Canada. Contrib.
of the glaciers, and the glaciers would have melted Mineral. Petrol. 134, 3–16.
Brasier, M.D., Green, O.R., Jephcoat, A.P., Kleppe, A.K.,
and left behind a hot, CO2-rich surface environ-
van Kranendonk, M., Lindsay, J.F., Steele, A., and
ment (Kasting and Caldeira, 1992). (See Sec. 4D for Grassineau, N. (2002) Questioning the evidence for
impacts of Snowball Earth on evolution.) Earth’s oldest fossils. Nature 416, 76–81.
McGregor, V.R. and Mason, B. (1977) Petrogenesis and
Evans, D.A., Beukes, N.J., and Kirschvink, J.L. (1997) Low- geochemistry of metabasaltic and metasedimentary en-
latitude glaciation in the Palaeoproterozoic era. Nature claves in the Amitsoq gneisses, West Greenland. Am.
386, 262–266. Mineral. 62, 887–904.
Harland, W.B. (1965) Critical evidence for a great Infra- Mojzsis, S.J., Arrhenius, G., McKeegan, K.D., Harrison, T.M.,
Cambrian glaciation. Geol. Rundschau 54, 45–61. Nutman, A.P., and Friend, C.R.L. (1996) Evidence for life
Hoffman, P.F. and Schrag, D.P. (2000) Snowball Earth. Sci. on Earth before 3,800 million years ago. Nature 384, 55–59.
Am. 282, 68–75. Mojzsis, S., Harrison, M., and Pidgeon, R. (2001) Oxygen-
Hoffman, P.F., Kaufman, A.J., Halverson, G.P., and isotope evidence from ancient zircons for liquid water
Schrag, D.P. (1998) A Neoproterozoic snowball Earth. at the Earth’s surface 4,300 Myr ago. Nature 409, 178–181.
Science 281, 1342–1346. Rosing, M.T. (1999) 13C-depleted carbon microparticles in
Kasting, J.F. and Caldeira, K. (1992) Susceptibility of the 3700-Ma sea-floor sedimentary rocks from West
early Earth to irreversible glaciation caused by carbon Greenland. Science 283, 674–676.
dioxide clouds. Nature 359, 226–228. Schopf, J.W. (1993) Microfossils of the early Archean Apex
Kirschvink, J.L. (1992) Late Proterozoic low-latitude Chert—new evidence of the antiquity of life. Science
global glaciation; the snowball Earth. In The Proterozoic 260, 640–646.
Biosphere, edited by J.W. Schopf and C. Klein, Cam- Wilde, S., Valley, J., Peck, W., and Graham, C. (2001) Ev-
bridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 51–52. idence from detrital zircons for the existence of conti-
nental crust and oceans on the Earth at 4.4 Gyr ago. Na-
ture 409, 175–178.
Firsts
One area of ongoing research and almost con-
2E. Global Climate Evolution (MC)
tinuous debate revolves around the earliest known
examples of a variety of biologically important phe- In this section, we examine how the atmospheres
nomena. For example, it is important to know of rocky planets change in response to increases in
when the continents first developed—the oldest stellar luminosity and intrinsic changes in plane-
known rocks are 4.0 billion years old (Bowring tary biogeochemical cycles. Astrobiologically, we
and Williams, 1999)—and when liquid water first choose to focus on atmospheres, given that the bulk
formed on Earth—the oldest known minerals, zir- composition of the atmospheres of extraterrean
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 761

rocky planets may be observable within the up- nosity is dropped by 30%, Earth’s Teff becomes 233
coming decades. We discuss Earth’s possible re- K. Consequently, the planetary temperature (233 
sponses to the “faint young Sun,” the apparent sta- 33  266 K), would be below the freezing point of
bility of Earth’s climate, Earth’s changing oxygen water (0°C  273 K) given that our atmosphere had
levels, how atmospheric constituents can escape not changed with time. As discussed in Sec. 2D,
from rocky planets, and the impact of these topics there is evidence of aqueous process on the surface
on our general understanding of planets. of the early Earth, with the first evidence for wide-
spread glaciations only appearing in the geologic
Kasting, J.F. and Catling, D.C. (2003) Evolution of a hab- record around 2.3 Ga. Hence, greenhouse gases
itable planet. Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 41, 429–463.
must have played a stronger role on the early Earth.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a dominant constituent
Earth’s Climate over Time of volcanic outgassing, and therefore a thick at-
mosphere of CO2 was, for many years, the accepted
Planetary temperature  effective temperature hypothesis for the early Earth greenhouse warmer.
(Teff)  greenhouse warming Geologic evidence, however, limits paleo-CO2, and
The Teff of a planet at a certain distance from a recent research has focused on CH4 as a plausible
star is calculated by equating the stellar energy flux greenhouse gas present in the atmosphere of early
received at the surface (minus planetary albedo, en- Earth. The multiple lines of evidence that support
ergy flux directly reflected back into space) with the methane include: (1) methanogenesis is an ancient,
thermal radiation of the planet itself (see also Sec. methane-producing metabolism whose energy
5B). For a planet at 1 AU from a 4.5-billion year old source (H2, CO2, acetate, formate) was widely
G2 star (i.e., Earth), whose average albedo is 0.3, the available during the Archean; (2) the redox state of
effective temperature is 255 K. Earth’s global aver- (and hence gases emanating from) ancient volca-
age surface temperature is currently 288 K, which noes and crust was more reduced (Holland, 2002);
implies an addition 33 K of warming by greenhouse (3) the lack of oxygen in the Archean atmosphere
gases. A “greenhouse” gas is transparent to the (see below) allowed methane concentrations to rise
dominant stellar wavelengths [near-ultraviolet to higher levels (Pavlov et al., 2000); and (4) collapse
(UV) and visible for stars of astrobiological inter- of a CH4 greenhouse could potentially explain
est], but absorbs strongly in the infrared (IR). The “Snowball Earth” events. (The above arguments
UV/visible light passes through the atmosphere implicitly assume that Earth’s albedo has remained
and heats the surface of the planet, which then ra- 0.3 for the course of Earth’s history—an assump-
diates in the thermal IR. Greenhouse gasses (e.g., tion in almost all climate models, but an unproven
CO2, CH4, NH3, H2O) absorb these outgoing IR hypothesis.) A general theory of cloud cover on
photons and trap heat in the atmosphere. In Earth’s rocky planets remains elusive.
modern atmosphere, most greenhouse warming is
caused by H2O and CO2 (approximately two-thirds Hoffman, P.F. and Schrag, D.P. (2002) The snowball Earth
hypothesis: testing the limits of global change. Terra
and one-third of the warming, respectively) with
Nova 14, 129–155.
CH4 responsible for approximately 1–2°. Holland, H.D. (2002) Volcanic gases, black smokers, and
the Great Oxidation Event. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 66,
The faint young Sun problem 3811–3826.
Kasting, J.F. (1993) Earth’s early atmosphere. Science 259,
As described in Chapter 1, main sequence stars 920–926.
convert hydrogen to helium in their cores. Over Pavlov, A.A., Kasting, J.F., Brown, L.L., Rages, K.A., and
long periods of time, the mean molecular weight Freedman, R. (2000) Greenhouse warming by CH4 in
of a star’s core increases, which causes it to contract the atmosphere of early Earth. J. Geophys. Res. 105,
11981–11990.
and increase energy output. Over the 4.6 billion
years that the Sun has been on the main sequence,
stellar models predict that its radiative energy per Atmospheric Processes: Feedback and
second (“luminosity” in astronomers’ jargon) has Atmospheric Loss
increased by 30%. Consideration of the effects of
Climate feedbacks: what stabilizes
stellar evolution on the Teff of Earth draws us to
planetary climates?
the inescapable conclusion that the composition of
Earth’s atmosphere must change with time if tem- Other than brief intervals of global glaciation,
perature is to remain constant. When solar lumi- Earth’s climate appears to have remained clement
762 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

over most of Earth’s history. We discuss this in by the direct gravitational accretion of gas
terms of “feedback loops” on the climate: a pos- (mostly H and He) from the solar nebula. Mas-
itive feedback occurs when change in a variable sive planets like Jupiter retain their primary at-
reinforces itself and the process accelerates, while mospheres, but rocky planets do not. Massive im-
a negative feedback occurs when an increase in a pacts, such as the one that created the moon, can
variable leads to an eventual decrease in that hydrodynamically blow the atmosphere off of
same variable (or vice versa). Strong negative rocky planets into interplanetary space. New at-
feedbacks on climate must balance any positive mospheres develop and are characterized by
feedbacks in order for climate to remain steady. post-formation processes such as planetary out-
The dominant positive feedback process over gassing, biospheric activity, atmospheric photo-
long periods is the ice-albedo feedback. At low chemistry, and subsequent thermal escape. By
global temperatures, the extent of glaciation is en- number and mass, H is the most important ele-
hanced. Ice is very reflective (albedo of 0.6), so ment that escapes from Earth and Venus—less
increased ice coverage increases the planetary massive rocky planets like Mars may lose heav-
albedo. The amount of absorbed energy is, there- ier elements as well.
fore, reduced, cooling the planet and resulting in
the formation of more ice. Genda, H. and Abe, Y. (2005) Enhanced atmospheric loss
The ice-albedo feedback is usually offset by the on protoplanets at the giant impact phase in the pres-
ence of oceans. Nature 433, 842–845.
carbonate-silicate cycle, the dominant long-term
negative feedback on CO2 levels (and hence tem-
perature via the greenhouse effect) that keeps the History of Oxygen in Earth’s Atmosphere
planetary climate stable. CO2 dissolves in rain-
drops to form carbonic acid (H2CO3), which
Evidence for changing O2 levels
breaks down silicate rocks on the continents and
in Earth’s atmosphere
releases Ca2 ions, bicarbonate (HCO3), and sil-
ica (SiO2) into the oceans. These products are Beyond gas bubbles trapped in ice cores, we
used to create carbonate rocks, both organically have no direct evidence of paleo-atmospheric
and inorganically. The burial of carbonate rocks composition. Of the main components of the at-
removes CO2 from the atmosphere/ocean sys- mosphere, N and Ar do not react with surface
tem. The temperature dependence of weathering rocks and, hence, leave no trace of their total lev-
makes the process a negative feedback with an els in the bulk rock record. O2 is an extremely re-
approximately 1 million year time scale. Higher active molecule, degrades most organic com-
temperatures cause more weathering, which pounds, is highly flammable, and generally
leads to more carbonate production and, hence, leaves evidence of its existence. To most ob-
larger CO2 sink; lower temperatures inhibit servers, the geologic record preserves clear evi-
weathering and, hence, limit carbonate produc- dence of progressive oxygenation of the atmos-
tion, which allows CO2 to build up in the atmos- phere with a significant rise in oxygen levels at
phere. Over geologic time, the CO2 is re-intro- 2.4 Ga. A history of the pertinent paleo-con-
duced to the ocean/atmosphere system via straints on Earth’s oxygen levels and potential
volcanism and, thus, closes the carbonate-silicate evolutionary curve is presented in Fig. 2.3 (see
cycle. Under most circumstances, the carbonate- Ohmoto, 1996, for an alternative viewpoint).
silicate cycle acts to keep climate stable. In brief
intervals of geologic time referred to as “snow- O2 in the modern atmosphere
ball earth” episodes (see Sec. 2D and below), the
ice-albedo positive feedback may have overcome Today, free O2 exists in the atmosphere because
the negative feedback of the carbonate-silicate the net sources are larger than the net sinks. The
cycle. oxygen we breathe derives from oxygenic photo-
synthesis. If photosynthetic activity were to stop,
free oxygen would be scrubbed from the atmos-
Planetary atmospheres: loss processes
phere in approximately 2 million years. Another
Atmospheres of rocky planets are so-called way of saying this is that large quantities of free
“secondary atmospheres.” All planets obtained oxygen in a planetary atmosphere cannot exist in
“primary atmospheres” during their formation long-term thermodynamic equilibrium. For this
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 763

ocean chemistry
NH4 NO3
Fe2 SO42 (surface)
S2 (deep)?
SO42 (deep)
0 0

1 1
animals charcoal
Oxygen level, log10(pO2) (bar)

2 Beggiatoa 2
detrital siderite
3 3

4 4
sulfur MIF (model  data)
5 5

6 6

13 13
prebiotic (model)
14 14
4.4 3.2 3.0 2.8 2.6 2.4 2.2 2.0 1.8 1.1 0.8 0.6 0.4 0.2 0.0
Time before present (Ga)
ozone layer
prokaryotes

cyanobacteria

eukaryotes

animals

FIG. 2.3. The history of atmospheric O2. The thick dashed line shows a possible evolutionary path of atmospheric
O2 that satisfies biogeochemical data. Dotted horizontal lines show the duration of biogeochemical constraints. Down-
ward-pointing arrows indicate upper bounds on the partial pressure of oxygen (pO2), whereas upward-pointing ar-
rows indicate lower bounds. Unlabeled solid horizontal lines indicate the occurrence of particular paleosols, with the
length of each line showing the uncertainty in the age of each paleosol. See Catling and Claire (2005) for descrip-
tion/references for the constraints. Ga, billions of years ago; MIF, mass-independent fractionation.

reason, the detection of O2 (or its by-product, source is balanced by a combination of oxidation
ozone, O3) is considered a remotely observable of reduced material on the continents (usually re-
biomarker (by future missions like Terrestrial ferred to in bulk as “weathering”), and by reac-
Planet Finder/Darwin; see Sec. 5A) as no large- tion with reduced gases (such as H2, H2S, CH4,
scale abiotic sources of free oxygen are known. CO) that emerge from the planet via volcanism
The gross source of free oxygen is oxygenic pho- and metamorphism.
tosynthesis, with an average “reaction” of CO2 
H2O  CH2O  O2. This reaction reverses al-
Theories for the rise of O2
most completely by the complementary processes
of respiration and decay. The only reason that a Oxygen levels were smaller in the past because
net source of free oxygen exists is that some or- either the oxygen source was smaller or the oxy-
ganic carbon escapes re-oxidation by being gen sink was larger. The simplest explanation for
buried in sediments on the sea floor. This net a rise in oxygen at 2.4 Ga might be that oxygenic
764 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

photosynthesis evolved then, but there is bio- phere evolved to an oxic state: a status report. Earth
marker evidence that oxygenic photosynthesis Planet. Sci. Lett. 237, 1–20.
existed by 2.7 Ga (hopanoids) (see Sec. 4C). The Kasting, J.F., Pavlov, A.A., and Siefert, J.L. (2001) A cou-
pled ecosystem-climate model for predicting the
direct evidence for oxygenic photosynthesis
methane concentration in the archean atmosphere.
comes in the form of “molecular fossils” or “bio- Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 31, 271–285.
markers,” remnants of specific organisms that re- Ohmoto, H. (1996) Evidence in pre-2.2 Ga paleosols for
sisted decay in the geologic record. 2--Methyl- the early evolution of atmospheric oxygen and terres-
hopane biomarkers derived from oxygenic trial biota. Geology 24, 1135–1138.
photosynthetic cyanobacteria and steranes de-
rived from eukaryotic sterols are present at 2.7 Comparative Planetology
Ga (Brocks et al., 1999).
The history of Earth is similar, but not identi-
The overall driver for the oxidation of rocky
cal, to that of neighboring planets. It is unknown
planets is likely to be hydrogen escape. Earth as
whether Venus received the same amount of wa-
a whole formed in a chemically reducing state.
ter as did Earth; planet formation simulations
The only way for any system to become irre-
show that multiple planet systems can form with
versibly oxidized involves a permanent loss of re-
varying water contents (Raymond et al., 2004). If
ductants, as occurs when hydrogen (derived from
Venus did have the same amount of water as
neutral material like H2O) escapes the planet. The
Earth, the higher Teff apparently led to a “run-
progressive oxidation of Earth’s mantle and crust
away greenhouse” condition (Kasting, 1988)—
via H escape reduces the proportion of reductants
positive temperature feedback from greenhouse
in volcanic and metamorphic gases, which re-
warming of water vapor winning over all other
duces the O2 sink over geologic time. In this con-
feedbacks. The time scale for Venus’ global ocean
sensus viewpoint, the early Earth oxygen sink de-
loss (presuming it happened) is unknown, as al-
creases gradually through the Archean until 2.4
most all features of the planet remain underex-
Ga, when the net sources of oxygen to the bio-
plored.
sphere were larger than the net sinks. It is unclear
Mars suffers from being slightly outside the
what determines the timing of this transition and
classical HZ (see Fig. 5.2 and Sec. 5B) and, as a
how the time scale will change for other, Earth-
small rocky planet (1/10th the mass of Earth),
like planets. The details of this interdisciplinary
appears geologically dead. The root cause of ge-
story are being actively investigated by astrobi-
ologic activity is the outward heat flow from ra-
ologists interested in biogeochemical cycling, iso-
dioactive elements in the interior. Smaller plan-
tope systematics, field geology, atmospheric
ets have less radioactive material and cool more
modeling, and the search for life on extrasolar
quickly. (This same line of reasoning applies to
planets.
planetary magnetic fields, which are caused by
convective processes in liquid cores.) There is
Rise of O3 and the Proterozoic mounting evidence that water flowed on the mar-
Concentrations of O3 rise nonlinearly with tian surface during some epochs of that planet’s
oxygen levels, with the result that modern levels history, but these may have been transient events.
of O3 are present even if the partial pressure of The faint young Sun problem is much more se-
O2 is 1%, the approximate level predicted after vere in the context of early Mars, which necessi-
the rise of O2 at 2.4 Ga. Prior to the rise of O2 (and tates a significant content of greenhouse gasses
hence O3), most UV radiation from the Sun for the presence of a global ocean. More work
reached Earth’s surface, a condition that many must be done to differentiate between the “warm,
modern organisms would find unpleasant. Oxy- wet early Mars” scenario and the more conserv-
gen blocks the incoming radiation. So the rise in ative “cold with transient liquid water” scenario.
oxygen, brought about largely by oceanic (See also Sec. 5C.)
cyanobacteria, also created conditions more
amenable for life to exist on the continents. Kasting, J.F. (1988) Runaway and moist greenhouse at-
mospheres and the evolution of Earth and Venus. Icarus
Brocks, J.J., Logan, G.A., Buick, R., and Summons, R.E. 74, 472–494.
(1999) Archean molecular fossils and the early rise of Raymond, S.N., Quinn, T., and Lunine, J.I. (2004) Making
eukaryotes. Science 285, 1033–1036. other earths: dynamical simulations of terrestrial planet
Catling, D.C. and Claire, M. (2005) How Earth’s atmos- formation and water delivery. Icarus 168, 1–17.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 765

Abbreviations ionic bonds only involve the attraction of positive


and negative charges.) Organic molecules usually
AU, astronomical units; BIF, banded iron for-
form a carbon “backbone,” which supports any
mation; Ga, billions of years ago; HZ, habitable
number of other elements—primarily hydrogen,
zone; IR, infrared; KBO, Kuiper Belt object; K-T,
oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulfur. At the
Cretaceous-Tertiary; LHB, Late Heavy Bombard-
same time, “biochemical,” “biological,” and “bi-
ment; Ma, millions of years ago; Teff, effective
otic” all refer to expressly living processes, and
temperature; UV, ultraviolet.
thus, both inorganic biochemistry and abiotic or-
ganic chemistry occur. The term “biomolecules”
refers to the set of compounds common in, but
Chapter 3. Astrobiogeochemistry and the not exclusive to, living organisms.
Origin of Life (FS) Most biochemistry involves long-chain mole-
cules (polymers) made up of identical or nearly
The fundamental structures and processes that identical subunits (called monomers). The so-
constitute life rely on a relatively small number called biogenic elements (C, H, N, O, P, and S),
of molecules. Formulating hypotheses about the along with trace amounts of other elements (e.g.,
origin of life requires a basic understanding of the iron, magnesium), combine to form the three pri-
role these molecules play in modern life, as well mary “biomonomers” or building blocks of life:
as how they may have formed or appeared in the sugars, amino acids, and nucleotides. The three
prebiotic conditions of early Earth. This chapter monomers in turn form polymers or chains: poly-
begins with a summary of the chemical building saccharides, proteins, and nucleic acids, respec-
blocks of life and how they interact (Sec. 3A). tively. A fourth class of biological molecule,
There follows a discussion of how those interac- lipids, includes those organic molecules that have
tions may have first started (Sec. 3B). The bio- both polar and nonpolar groups, thereby allow-
chemical complexity of even the simplest organ- ing reactions with water and organic solvents.
isms makes it difficult to conceive of a less (Note that polar groups are parts of molecules
complicated ancestor. Nonetheless, attempts to with charges that can interact with other charged
understand how life originated on a prebiotic molecules, like water. Nonpolar groups have no
earth are extremely important for understanding charge and thus can associate with other nonpo-
both the evolution and the definition of life. The lar molecules, like oil.)
end of the chapter discusses current evidence for “Metabolism” refers to the suite of reactions
the development of complexity (both chemical that affect organic molecules in a cell. Metabolism
and structural) through the 4.5 billion years of therefore includes the energy-requiring synthesis
Earth’s history. of biomolecules (anabolism) as well as the en-
ergy-yielding degradation of nutrients (catabo-
3A. Life’s Basic Components (FS, LM) lism).

Life on Earth is distinguished from inanimate


matter in part by its chemical complexity. Living
Carbohydrates (Sugars)
organisms consist of a tremendous variety of mol- Carbohydrates, the most abundant biomole-
ecules interacting to maintain physical structure, cules on Earth and the primary energy sources
acquire resources, utilize energy, and maintain a for many organisms, are named for their princi-
constant environment. Despite this complexity, pal components—carbon, hydrogen, and oxy-
the molecular constituents of all terrean life share gen—which typically conform to the ratio
several fundamental properties. (CH2O)n. The three major size classes of carbo-
Problems arise when trying to differentiate be- hydrates are monosaccharides, oligosaccharides,
tween the chemical processes that occur only in and polysaccharides. The monosaccharides, or
living systems and those processes that occur at simple sugars, consist of an asymmetric chain or
large. The vocabulary of biological chemistry re- ring of carbons with accessory oxygen and hy-
quires important distinctions. “Organic chem- drogen atoms. The most abundant monosaccha-
istry” includes all chemical processes using two ride in nature is the six-carbon sugar, D-glucose,
or more covalently bonded carbon atoms (cova- used in energy storage for most organisms.
lent bonds involve the sharing of electrons, while Oligosaccharides consist of several simple sugar
766 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

subunits bound together. The most common them good for energy capture and redox reac-
oligosaccharides contain only two monomers tions (see Sec. 6B). Important terpenes in biolog-
(e.g., glucose  fructose  sucrose). Polysaccha- ical systems include all steroids (e.g., cholesterol)
rides, on the other hand, consist of many and most pigments that absorb or react with light.
monomers (often hundreds or thousands) joined
in linear or branched chains.
Amino Acids  Polypeptides (Proteins)
The ability of organisms to form biomolecules
from abiotic components defines “primary pro- Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins,
ducers” or “autotrophs.” Autotrophs use light en- consist of a central carbon atom bonded to four
ergy (photosynthesis) or chemical energy different side chains: an amine group (¶NH2), a
(chemosynthesis) to string together carbon atoms carboxyl group (¶COOH), a hydrogen atom, and
(inorganic) to form monosaccharide subunits (or- a highly variable “R” group. Amino acids may
ganic). These subunits can then be used to form function singly (e.g., as the biological signal mol-
metabolic and structural components of the cell, ecules epinephrine, serotonin, histamine) or link
including the polysaccharides used as structural together. Amino acids bond via amine-carboxyl
support (e.g., cellulose in plants, peptidoglycan in (¶NH2¶OOC¶) connections called peptide
bacteria) or for energy storage (e.g., starch). Or- linkages to form polymers called polypeptides.
ganisms that cannot produce their own biomole- Twenty-two standard amino acids form the
cules are called “heterotrophs.” They break down monomers for almost all polypeptides in terrean
polysaccharides into glucose and then break organisms. One or more polypeptides folded into
down glucose to release energy (respiration). a functional three-dimensional structure consti-
Complex biomolecules are built by stringing to- tute a protein. In modern cells, proteins are fun-
gether two carbon molecules or larger pieces damental structural components. Perhaps more
formed in the breakdown of food. Thus the bios- importantly, proteins called enzymes catalyze al-
phere runs on captured energy from solar and most all cellular biochemical reactions, including
chemical sources that is stored as sugars and re- those of energy metabolism, biosynthesis, cell-to-
released in respiration. (For more on auto- and cell signaling, nucleic acid replication, and cell di-
heterotrophy, see Sec. 6B.) vision. (A catalyst is a molecule that speeds up a
reaction, but is not consumed by it.)
Lipids (Fats)
Nucleotides  Nucleic Acids
Lipids, the primary component of cell mem-
[Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) and
branes, are a chemically and functionally diverse
Ribonucleic Acid (RNA)]
group of biomolecules weakly soluble in water
and highly soluble in organic solvents. Most Nucleotides, the primary units of biological in-
lipids are derivatives of fatty acids: highly re- formation systems, are composed of a pentose
duced carboxylic acids (molecules containing a molecule (five-carbon sugar) connected to a phos-
¶COOH group) with long chains of four to 36 phate group and a nitrogen-containing base. Sin-
carbons. Particularly abundant are the phospho- gle nucleotides often function as signaling mech-
lipids, a class of lipids that consist of a sugar mol- anisms in the cell. Adenosine triphosphate (ATP),
ecule (glycerol) linked to two fatty acids and to a a nucleotide ring with three phosphate groups, is
polar alcohol molecule via a phosphodiester the principal energy currency within every cell.
(¶O¶PO2¶O¶) bond. These molecules, there- Energy from sunlight, reduced chemical com-
fore, are amphiphilic (i.e., they contain both po- pounds, or food can be stored in a phosphate
lar and nonpolar domains). Phospholipids form bond (—PO2—O—PO2—). Breaking a phosphate
sheets and bubbles by lining up with nonpolar bond in ATP releases energy for metabolic reac-
domains inward and polar domains outward. In- tions. For example, the degradation of glucose by
deed, the membrane that surrounds every living animals (heterotrophs) yields 36 ATP equiva-
cell is essentially such a lipid sheet formed into a lents, while the synthesis of glucose by plants (au-
bubble. Another common type of lipid, terpene, totrophs) consumes 66 ATP equivalents.
is essential for energy transfer. Formed from five- Nucleotide polymers are called nucleic acids.
carbon segments called isoprene, terpenes have In modern organisms, DNA and RNA constitute
multiple shared electron orbitals, which makes the primary information storage and delivery
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 767

molecules in the cell. These nucleic acids differ The direction of information transfer in con-
with regard to their pentose molecules—ribose or temporary organisms, DNA  RNA  protein,
deoxyribose—and their attached bases. The ni- applies nearly universally to contemporary or-
trogenous bases in these molecules belong to one ganisms, though some information travels in the
of two types, purines or pyrimidines. In DNA and opposite direction. For example, certain animal
RNA, the two major purine bases are adenine (A) viruses called retroviruses store information as
and guanine (G). The primary distinction be- RNA and use an enzyme called reverse tran-
tween DNA and RNA lies in the nature of their scriptase to make DNA from an RNA template.
pyrimidine bases. Both utilize cytosine (C), but DNA may also store information in regulatory se-
where DNA has thymine (T), RNA has uracil (U). quences, which do not code for proteins but do
Nucleotides are complementary, such that A affect the timing and rate of transcription.
can form (hydrogen) bonds with U or T while C [A special note on nucleic acid terminology:
can form bonds with G. Two nucleic acid strands RNA serves several purposes in the cell. RNA
can thus bond together all along their length and strands used to transfer information from DNA
form the characteristic double helix. This com- to proteins are called mRNA. Small tangles of
plementarity is essential to the storage and trans- RNA that shepherd amino acids to the ribosome
mission of genetic information. for incorporation in proteins are called transfer
RNA (tRNA). Larger clusters of RNA essential to
The Central Dogma (DNA  RNA  the function of ribosomes are called ribosomal
Protein) RNA (rRNA). Most ribosomes have a large and
a small subunit. The small subunit (16S or 18S
The so-called “central dogma” theory of mole- rRNA) forms the basis of much phylogenetics.
cular biology states that information is stored in See Sec. 4B.]
DNA and transferred to proteins by way of RNA.
Almost all information necessary for building Di Giulio, M. (2003) The early phases of genetic code ori-
and maintaining an organism comes encoded in gin: conjectures on the evolution of coded catalysis.
DNA. Detailed plans for proteins, the active ele- Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 33, 479–489.
ment of biochemistry, can be found as a series of
three letter codons. Codons contain three se-
Prebiotic Chemistry
quential nucleotides (A, C, G, or T/U). Each
codon (there are 43, or 64) codes for one of the 22 “Prebiotic chemistry” investigates how syn-
different amino acids found in contemporary or- thesis of biomolecules may have occurred prior
ganisms. Because there are more codons than to the beginning of life as we know it. Abiotic syn-
amino acids, the genetic code is referred to as de- thesis of amino acids was demonstrated, in 1953,
generate, with multiple codons coding for the by use of an electrical discharge under reducing
same amino acid. A specific codon (AUG) signals conditions. Today, most scientists agree that the
the start of a new polypeptide chain. In contrast, atmosphere of the primitive Earth was never as
the end of a chain is encoded by one of three pos- strongly reducing as investigators then sus-
sible stop codons (UAA, UAG, or UGA). (Note pected, but early experiments showed that com-
that this is the most common code; alternate ge- mon biomolecules could be synthesized.
netic codes, with minor differences, exist for some Several hypotheses have been proposed to ac-
microorganisms.) count for the abiotic supply of monomers neces-
Information transfer occurs in a two-step sary for the first self-replicating biological system
process. DNA, which is repaired and copied by to form. It remains difficult to imagine an inter-
proteins (e.g., DNA replicase and helicase), forms mediate system that contains some, but not all, of
the primary molecule for information storage. the elements of modern biochemistry and me-
Proteins called RNA polymerases copy codon se- tabolism. Most researchers suspect that an RNA-
quences from DNA to messenger RNA (mRNA) based existence or “RNA world” likely preceded
in a process called “transcription.” Protein/RNA the familiar DNA-RNA-protein world, because
complexes called ribosomes then direct protein RNA can function as both an information storage
synthesis from RNA by “reading” the codons and molecule and a catalyst (see Sec. 3B). Thus, one
inserting the corresponding amino acids into a molecule can serve in several roles. Although ex-
growing polypeptide chain (“translation”). perimental proof of abiotic amino acid synthesis
768 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

on early Earth exists, support for abiotic synthe- Jenniskens, P., Wilson, M.A., Packan, D., Laux, C.O.,
sis of nucleotides is lacking. A theory that ex- Kruger, C.H., Boyd, I.D., Popova, O.P., and Fonda, M.
plains the formation of nucleotides will be a nec- (1998) Meteors: a delivery mechanism of organic mat-
ter to the early Earth. Earth Moon Planets 82–3, 57–70.
essary step in any compelling theory for the
Maurette, M. (1998) Carbonaceous micrometeorites and
origin of life. the origin of life. Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 28, 385–412.

Kasting, J.F. and Brown, L.L. (1998) The early atmosphere


as a source of biogenic compounds. In The Molecular 3B. Evolution of Complexity (FS)
Origins of Life, edited by A. Brack, Cambridge Univer- The evolution of modern life from abiotic com-
sity Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 35–56.
Miller, S.L. (1955) A production of some organic com-
ponents must have involved successive increases
pounds under possible primitive Earth conditions. J. in biochemical complexity and organization. This
Am. Chem. Soc. 77, 2351–2361. section identifies some of the important innova-
Trevors, J.T. (2003) Origin of the first cells on Earth: a pos- tions that occurred during this process and dis-
sible scenario. Geomicrobiol. J. 20, 175–183. cusses their role in the evolution of complexity.
Among these are the inception of information
Endogenous Nucleotide Formation storage and transmission to offspring (heredity),
the origin of catalytic activity (enzymes), the for-
One nucleotide formation hypothesis suggests
mation of cell structure (membranes), and the be-
that precursors (e.g., ribose, nitrogenous bases)
ginning of energy utilization to make and main-
originated on the early Earth (endogenous for-
tain biomolecules (metabolism). In each theory
mation), either in the subsurface in volcanic
presented below, one of these four processes is
aquifers or on the surface of metal-sulfide min-
posited as occurring before the evolution of the
erals. Still, while several abiotic mechanisms have
other three.
been proposed, they are difficult to demonstrate.
The inability to provide a convincing scenario for
the prebiotic synthesis of ribonucleotides remains RNA-First Hypothesis (“RNA World”)
a major challenge to the RNA world hypothesis.
Primitive self-replicating living systems must
Orgel, L.E. (2004) Prebiotic chemistry and the origin of have been able not only to encode genetic infor-
the RNA world. Crit. Rev. Biochem. Mol. Biol. 39, 99–123. mation but also to catalyze biochemical reactions.
Zubay, G. (1998) Studies on the lead-catalyzed synthesis Neither DNA nor protein can perform these func-
of aldopentoses. Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 28, 13–26. tions simultaneously. It has been hypothesized,
however, that primitive forms of life could use
Exogenous Nucleotide Formation RNA as their sole hereditary and catalytic mater-
ial. “Ribozymes,” naturally occurring RNA mole-
Alternatively, nucleotide precursors and, po-
cules that exhibit enzymatic activity, suggest the
tentially, nucleotides may have formed exoge-
possibility of an RNA world in which organisms
nously (elsewhere) and then been transported to
have RNA but lack DNA and proteins. Ribozymes
Earth. Such material may have arrived via a class
have been shown to be capable of synthesizing the
of meteorites known as carbonaceous chondrites
sugar-phosphate backbone of RNA (i.e., self-as-
(see Sec. 2B). Carbonaceous chondrites are over
sembly) and catalyzing peptide bonds (i.e., pro-
3% carbon, often in the form of organic material,
tein formation). While studies to define the cat-
including amino acids, polycyclic aromatic hy-
alytic potential of ribozymes are ongoing, it is
drocarbons, and carboxylic acids. While the abil-
possible that these molecules were important for
ity of this material to withstand passage through
both the maintenance of an RNA world and a sub-
the Earth’s atmosphere and planetary impact is
sequent transition to protein-based catalysis.
debated, most scientists agree that meteorites, as
Though abiotic synthesis of ribonucleotide
well as comets and interstellar dust, must have
monomers may have occurred on early Earth,
contributed in part to the buildup of organic mat-
successful transition to an RNA world would
ter on the prebiotic Earth (see also Sec. 2A).
have required a mechanism for concentration and
Cooper, G., Kimmich, N., Belisle, W., Sarinan, J., Brab-
growth into self-replicating polymers. Mineral
bam, J., and Garrel, L. (2001) Carbonaceous meteorites surfaces may have provided a regular template
as a source of sugar-related compounds for the early upon which organic compounds could adsorb
Earth. Nature 414, 879–883. and ultimately polymerize.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 769

Cech, T.R. (1986) A model for the RNA-catalyzed repli- C¶C and C¶H bonds) to amphiphilic long-
cation of RNA. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 83, 4360–4363. chain acids. Self-aggregation of such compounds
Forterre, P. (2001) Genomics and early cellular evolution: could have facilitated the concentration of or-
the origin of the DNA world. C. R. Acad. Sci. III 324,
1067–1076.
ganics necessary for biochemistry. Alternatively,
Gilbert, W. (1986) The RNA world. Nature 319, 618. prebiotic lipids may have been brought to Earth
Zhang, B.L. and Cech, T.R. (1997) Peptide bond forma- in carbonaceous meteorites. The Murchison me-
tion by in vitro selected ribozymes. Nature 390, 96–100. teorite, an extensively studied carbonaceous
chondrite (see Sec. 2B), contains amphiphilic mol-
Proteins-First Hypothesis (“Protein World”) ecules that form vesicles in aqueous solution.
The amphiphilicity of lipids and other related
Alternatively, some support a peptides-first compounds (phospholipids, sphingolipids, sterols,
hypothesis, which suggests that proteins were the pigments) allows these molecules to sponta-
first catalysts used by life. Only later was the in- neously self-assemble in aqueous solutions to
formation inherent in protein structure trans- form droplets, bilayers, and vesicles. Such struc-
ferred to a nucleic acid (probably RNA) for tures may have constituted the first biological
long-term storage. A peptides-first scenario is membranes. These membranes can compartmen-
supported by the fact that amino acids and pep- talize biochemical functions, which allows for (1)
tides form relatively easily in simulated early small-scale spatial confinement of important bio-
Earth conditions, whereas the abiotic origin of nu- molecules and reactions, (2) co-evolution of en-
cleic acids is much more difficult to explain and capsulated molecules with differing genetic and
demonstrate in an experimental setting. As of yet, functional properties (e.g., ribozymes, catalytic
however, there is no strong evidence to suggest proteins), (3) reduction in chemical interference
a primitive polypeptide-to-nucleic acid transi- from hazardous molecules in the environment,
tion. The hypothesis that information storage and and (4) lowered molecular exchange with the ex-
replication began with a self-replicating clay min- terior allowing creation and maintenance of steep
eral has been put forward, but this scenario lacks chemical gradients. It has even been argued that
experimental verification. organic membranes may have hereditary poten-
tial; most membranes form by pinching off from
Cairns-Smith, A.G. and Hartman, H., eds. (1986) Clay
Minerals and the Origin of Life, Cambridge University
other membranes and, therefore, retain part of the
Press, Cambridge, UK. biochemical signature of the mother “cell.”
McClendon, J.H. (1999) The origin of life. Earth Sci. Rev.
47, 71–93. Brack, A., ed. (1998) The Molecular Origins of Life: Assem-
Rode, B.M. (1999) Peptides and the origin of life. Peptides bling Pieces of the Puzzle, Cambridge University Press,
20, 773–786. Cambridge, UK.
Segre, D., Ben-Eli, D., Deamer, D.W., and Lancet, D. (2001)
The lipid world. Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 31, 119–145.
Lipids-First Hypothesis (“Lipid World”)
Modern organisms are defined, in part, by their “Cell” Formation
structure. All known organisms (excluding At some point, catalytic molecules must have
viruses) are composed of cells with membranous become encapsulated within lipid membranes.
boundaries composed of lipid molecules. Lipid One popular theory for cell formation involves
membranes play a vital role in compartmental- clays. Clay mineral particles accelerate the forma-
ization, material transport, signal transduction, tion of fatty-acid vesicles (membrane-bound sacs)
energy production and storage, and metabolic re- and become encapsulated within the vesicles they
actions. Amphiphilic molecules (with both hy- create. A template for catalytic reactions (miner-
drophobic and hydrophilic ends), such as lipids, als) may have developed in this way. Alterna-
may have formed on the early Earth. Long-chain tively, cyclic environmental changes may have
fatty acids and fatty alcohols have been shown been involved. For example, lipids undergoing hy-
to form under hydrothermal conditions from dration-dehydration and freeze-thaw cycles have
gaseous precursors such as CO, H2, and CO2 (i.e., been shown to encapsulate other biomolecules
Fisher-Tropsch reactions). Additionally, illumi- (proteins, nucleic acids) in lipid vesicles.
nation with ultraviolet light can fuel the oxida- Selective permeability to nutrient molecules
tion of alkanes (hydrocarbons containing only must also have been an essential component of
770 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

early cells. In the absence of modern membrane- temporary organisms but, rather, may have been
spanning proteins, which facilitate rapid solute catalyzed by abiotic peptides or ions in the envi-
transport into cells, early membranes may have ronment.
been formidable barriers between encapsulated
catalytic systems and the external pool of mole- Anet, F.A. (2004) The place of metabolism in the origin of
cules needed for growth. This permeability prob- life. Curr. Opin. Chem. Biol. 8, 654–659.
Guimaraes, R.C. (2002) An evolutionary definition of life:
lem may have been resolved, however, if the am-
from metabolism to the genetic code. In Fundamentals
phiphilic molecules in early membranes were of Life, edited by G. Palyi, C. Zucchi, and L. Caglioti, El-
significantly shorter than their modern counter- sevier, New York, pp. 95–110.
parts. Permeability to ionic molecules has been
shown to increase by several orders of magnitude
when membrane phospholipids are reduced from Potential Habitats for the Origin of Life
18 to 14 carbon atoms in length. Thus, primitive
Several theories have been put forth to explain
cell membranes may have been considerably
where on Earth life originated. High-temperature
thinner than those of modern organisms.
environments, which were common on a vol-
Cells, regardless of how they first formed,
canically active Earth during heavy bombard-
played a key role in the development of metabo-
ment (the Hadean), have been suggested as
lism. Many key biochemical reactions depend on
potential sites for the origin of life. Deep-sea hy-
energy gradients; when high and low concentra-
drothermal vents may be contemporary analogs
tions of a molecule are separated, potential en-
to such environments. Spewing super-heated (up
ergy forms. The most common gradient in biol-
to 400°C) and metal-rich water from mid-ocean
ogy arises when protons are pumped into or out
spreading centers and deep-sea vents provides a
of a vesicle. As the concentration on one side of
rich-source of reduced chemicals (e.g., H2S, H2)
the membrane increases, protons will seek to
that modern prokaryotes (Archaea and Bacteria)
cross to the other side to restore balance. Organ-
(see Sec. 6A) use to fuel metabolism. Opponents
isms use this force to power ATP synthase, an en-
of the theory, however, claim that vent effluent is
zyme that generates ATP from adenosine diphos-
too hot to allow structural and functional stabil-
phate. Both phototrophy (energy from sunlight)
ity of the organic molecules and enzymes that
and respiration (energy from breakdown of sug-
support life. The possibility that life formed in the
ars) first pump protons, then generate ATP with
cooler water at the periphery of vents could be a
ATP synthase. Thus, the ability to capture energy
solution to this problem.
depends on membrane-bound vesicles. Indeed, it
Several other theories exist. One involves life
remains difficult to imagine an organism in the
arising in the deep subsurface, perhaps at
absence of lipid membranes.
aquifers in igneous rock. Such habitats could pro-
Luisi, P.L., Stano, P., Rasi, S., and Mavelli, F. (2004) A pos-
tect cells from ultraviolet light and provide access
sible route to prebiotic vesicle reproduction. Artif. Life to rich sources of H2. A more recent hypothesis
10, 297–308. suggests that life, or at least its molecular pre-
Morita, R.Y. (2000) Is H2 the universal energy source for cursors, may have first formed on the surface of
long-term survival? Microb. Ecol. 38, 307–320. atmospheric aerosols (liquid droplets suspended
Szostak, J.W., Bartel, D.P., and Luisi, P.L. (2001) Synthe- in a gas). Experiments have shown that marine
sizing life. Nature 409, 387–390. aerosols can support an exterior film of am-
phiphilic molecules, whose synthesis may be dri-
Rise of Metabolism ven in part by solar energy. Collapse of this film
Considerable debate surrounds the question of results in the division (fission) of the system,
whether metabolism arose before or after the first which suggests a simple mechanism for self-repli-
self-replicating hereditary molecule. Proponents cation. The relevance of this process to the evo-
of a metabolism-first hypothesis argue that repli- lution of cellular life remains speculative.
cation-first scenarios (including RNA first) re-
Donaldson, D.J., Tervahattu, H., Tuck, A.F., and Vaida, V.
quire sufficient concentrations of helper mole- (2004) Organic aerosols and the origin of life: an hy-
cules and, therefore, metabolic reactions. Such pothesis. Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 34, 57–67.
reactions, if they occurred, were not analogous to Trevors, J.T. (2002) The subsurface origin of microbial life
the enzyme-catalyzed metabolic processes of con- on the Earth. Res. Microbiol. 153, 487–491.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 771

Wachtershauser, G. (1988) Before enzymes and templates: that inclusion of the criteria of Darwinian evolu-
theory of surface metabolism. Microbiol. Rev. 52, tion, operating at the level of populations, ex-
452–484. cludes life in the form of a single individual as
well as potential processes of non-Darwinian
3C. Definition of Life (FS) adaptation. A central challenge in origin of life
What biochemical and physical processes are research is, therefore, to arrive at a definition of
fundamental to life? Determining which parame- life that moves beyond contemporary organisms
ters are necessary to identify life is vital to origin to include novel forms that likely occur outside
of life studies as well as astrobiology and the our planet.
search for life elsewhere. Most scientists agree
that no single parameter (e.g., information stor- Exceptions to the Rule
age) defines life. Rather, life results from multi- Several contemporary examples of “organisms”
ple mechanisms acting in concert. As discussed that do not meet the conventional criteria for life
above, all life on earth shares common molecular exist. Viruses, which consist primarily of nucleic
building blocks, chemistry, and energy genera- acids surrounded by a coat of proteins, do not re-
tion mechanisms. produce on their own. Rather, following invasion
of a host cell, they co-opt the machinery of the host
Evolution for use in their own reproduction. Likewise, au-
tonomous genetic elements such as plasmids repli-
A substantial fraction of biological work is de- cate within cells but need not benefit their host.
voted to the complex process of self-replication. Rather, many plasmids (small circular strands of
Replication is mediated by a detailed set of chem- DNA) code for reproduction and transportation to
ical instructions encoded within the genetic ma- other cells. Similarly, the prion, which consists only
terial of the cell. These instructions are duplicated of proteins, is an infectious molecule that depends
and transferred to successive cell generations. on its host cell for replication. The means by which
Significantly, the instructions are susceptible to these molecules replicate, disperse, and evolve re-
change (mutation) over time because of imperfect mains a mystery. Likewise, their inclusion in the
copying as well as external influences. Such category of “life” is debated.
changes create a mosaic of cells with differing
genetic material (i.e., genotypes). The resulting Brack, A. (1999) Life in the solar system. Adv. Space Res.
differences in reproductive efficiency result in 24, 417–433.
dynamic interactions between organism and Cleland, C. and Chyba, C. (2002) Defining ‘life.’ Orig. Life
environment that seem to be characteristic to life. Evol. Biosph. 32, 387–393.
(See Secs. 4A and 4B for a fuller treatment.) Joyce, J. (1994) Forward. In Origins of Life: The Central Con-
cepts, edited by D.W. Deamer and G.R. Fleischaker,
Jones and Bartlett, Sudbury, MA, pp. xi–xii.
Common Properties of Life Luisi, P.L. (1998) About various definitions of life. Orig.
Life Evol. Biosph. 28, 613–622.
Salient features of known life include: a carbon-
based molecular structure, complex chemical in-
teractions, compartmentalization via membra-
Abbreviations
nous boundaries, energy and biosynthetic A, adenine; ATP, adenosine triphosphate; C,
metabolism fueled by external energy and nutri- cytosine; DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid; G, gua-
ent sources, self-replication, information storage nine; mRNA, messenger ribonucleic acid; RNA,
in genetic material, and progressive adaptation ribonucleic acid; rRNA, ribosomal ribonucleic
via Darwinian evolution. But a definition of life acid; T, thymine; tRNA, transfer ribonucleic acid;
based on contemporary organisms is prohibitive U, uracil.
in that it fails to consider forms that preceded
modern cellular life (e.g., autocatalytic, self-repli-
cating RNA molecules) or forms that we cannot Chapter 4. Evolution of Life Through
conceive of presently. Indeed, NASA’s broader Time (JR, OZ)
definition of life as “a self-sustained chemical sys-
tem capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution” Terrean life reflects billions of years of devel-
is also somewhat limiting. Luisi (1998) argued opment. Life has continually reacted to, and ex-
772 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

tensively restructured, all the environments it has or full complement of expressed characteristics of
inhabited. Evolutionary biology in general (phy- an organism, may be unchanged, impaired, or
logenetics and population genetics in particular) improved.
investigates the process and character of this de- Phylogenetics (Sec. 4C) involves the recon-
velopment. This chapter begins with an overview struction of historical relationships among or-
of evolution as a concept (Sec. 4A). The next sec- ganisms on the basis of shared genotypic and
tion, Evolutionary Dynamics (Sec. 4B), deals with phenotypic traits. By looking at large numbers of
the nuts and bolts of mutation at the genetic level. individuals, it is possible to discover how they
Sections 4C, 4D, and 4E explain how the history are related and trace the process of mutations
of life on Earth can be reconstructed using ge- backward through time.
netic, biochemical, and structural evidence. (Edi- A few rare events in the history of terrean life
tor’s Note: Those unfamiliar with biochemistry (Sec. 4D) appear to have had a disproportionately
may wish to read Chapter 3, for an introduction large effect on modern life. Catastrophic events
to the nucleic acids, proteins, and metabolism be- (such as ice ages and meteor impacts) have
fore starting Chapter 4.) caused large-scale extinctions and speciations,
and endosymbiosis—a state of being wherein one
4A. Overview (LM) organism lives inside the cells of another—has
been central to the development of modern mul-
No subject could be more central to astrobiol-
ticellular life.
ogy than the evolution of organisms through
While many traits of ancient life can be recon-
time. The concepts of descent with variation and
structed based on modern genetic evidence,
natural selection appear central to our best defi-
physical remains can also be found. Geologists
nitions of life (though see Sec. 3C). At the same
and paleontologists study the chemical and struc-
time, it must be noted that modern theories of
tural remains of past life. Chemical fossils (Sec.
evolution can be difficult to grasp. Often the
4E) consist of chemical traces that provide evi-
mechanisms are obscure and the theories coun-
dence that a specific type of organism lived at a
terintuitive. More than change through time, di-
given place and time. Several organic compounds
vergence of species, and adaptation, evolution re-
have been discovered that, apparently, can only
flects a probabilistic (technically stochastic)
be produced by biological processes. When those
process, in which life explores a seemingly infi-
processes no longer appear active, these mole-
nite number of possible states. Each organism has
cules and their degradation products are called
descendents, all of which vary slightly in their
“molecular fossils” as they are the chemical re-
composition and biochemistry. Complex mecha-
mains of life. Structural remains, a more tradi-
nisms have arisen to encourage variation (such as
tional kind of fossil, also give evidence of the na-
sex in animals and conjugation in bacteria). En-
ture, distribution, and abundance of past life.
tropy, however, ensures the imperfect transmis-
Paleontology (Sec. 4F) investigates remnants of
sion of information and guarantees that even the
organisms that once lived and tries to piece to-
most careful replicating system will result in
gether the history of terrean life.
some errors.
As with any historical science, the study of ter-
Evolutionary dynamics (Sec. 4B) studies the
rean evolution is not amenable to well defined
manner and method of variation as organisms
variables and clean experiments. Often re-
produce offspring. The discovery of deoxyri-
searchers must make inferences about past events
bonucleic acid (DNA) led to an understanding
on the basis of limited data. This leads to some
that the basic unit of evolution, the mutation, oc-
contention over the best possible theories of in-
curs at the level of nucleotides. As an informa-
quiry and reasoning. It is essential to be aware of
tion storage molecule, DNA is susceptible to
fundamental assumptions that contribute to pop-
change by outside factors (e.g., radiation, chemi-
ular theories, especially when those assumptions
cal mutagens) as well as imperfect transmission
remain controversial.
of data to offspring. The genotype, or full com-
plement of genetic information contained in an
4B. Evolutionary Dynamics (OZ, LM, JR)
organism, changes. Mutations, which occur at the
level of DNA, become expressed in proteins and At the most basic level, evolutionary changes
biochemical regulation of the cell. The phenotype, occur by modification of nucleotide sequences.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 773

The simplest change that can occur to a sequence confers a benefit to the organism, then that or-
is a point mutation: the change of a single nu- ganism will be more successful and that mutation
cleotide (e.g., adenine  cytosine). Other changes will become more common in the population.
involve deletion or transpositions of nucleotides. Then the gene is said to be under positive selec-
(A transposition occurs when a nucleotide or se- tion.
ries of nucleotides moves from one place in the One popular way to assess whether a gene is
genome—the organism’s complete set of genes— under positive, purifying, or no selection is to cal-
to another). Mechanisms of mutation (imperfect culate the Ka/Ks ratio, that is, the ratio of non-
copying, radiation, chemical mutagens) tend to synonymous substitutions (Ka; resulting in an
be more common at certain sites or at certain nu- amino acid change) to synonymous substitutions
cleotides, which biases mutation. If a DNA se- (Ks; not resulting in an amino acid change). Se-
quence codes for a protein, some mutations may lection can be judged as follows:
result in an amino acid change in the resulting
protein sequence, though others do not (because • Ka/Ks  1 implies the gene is under no selec-
of the redundancy of genetic code). Some muta- tion (evolving neutrally)
tions have no noticeable effect, while others are • Ka/Ks  1 implies the gene is under positive
detrimental to the carrier or (very rarely) provide selection
a benefit. When variation disappears and one se- • Ka/Ks  1 implies the gene is under purifying
quence becomes the sole genotype for all mem- selection
bers of a population, it is said to be “fixed” in that
population. A mutation that has reached fixation With time, sequences that accumulate substi-
can be referred to as a substitution. tutions will diverge. By comparison of sequences
derived from a common ancestral sequence (ho-
Neutral, Purifying, and Positive Selection mologous sequences), it is possible to infer the re-
lationships among the sequences (see Sec. 4B).
Most mutations found in a population and
most substitutions are selectively neutral or
nearly neutral (the ones that are detrimental dis- Horizontal Gene Transfer
appear from the population). The theory of neu- All members of a population exchange genes
tral evolution, first proposed by Motoo Kimura and compete for limited resources, which makes
in 1968, laid the fundamentals for this point of it impossible to consider any one organism in iso-
view. Neutral mutations can be fixed in a popu- lation. Genes are normally transferred “verti-
lation due to random genetic drift. The propo- cally,” passed from parents to offspring, but also
nents of the opposing (less popular) school of travel horizontally (or laterally) between organ-
thought, the selectionists, argue that mutations isms in the same environment. In horizontal
are fixed because of the selective advantage they transfer, an incoming gene may replace or ran-
provide. domly recombine (hybridize) with an already
Because of functional constraints on genes, present gene, or simply be inserted into the
substitutions do not occur in all parts of a gene genome. Some genes, so-called selfish genetic el-
uniformly (this phenomenon is called among site ements (such as mobile genetic elements or plas-
rate variation). Usually, the sites that are impor- mids), even have mechanisms for promoting their
tant for the function of a protein accumulate rel- own incorporation at the expense of the host.
atively few substitutions; such changes, more A number of mechanisms have evolved to fa-
likely than not, would decrease the efficiency of cilitate horizontal gene transfer. They fall into,
the protein. Substitutions also do not occur with roughly, three categories: transformation, conju-
the same rate and pattern in all genes. In very im- gation, and transduction. Transformation in-
portant functional genes, almost any mutation volves the uptake of small snippets of DNA from
appears to be detrimental. As organisms with the surrounding environment. Conjugation oc-
mutations fail to survive, only the pure copies re- curs when one cell constructs a bridge to another
main and the gene is said to be under purifying cell and passes genetic elements through the
selection. Alternatively, when conditions change bridge (transposons, plasmids). Transduction re-
or when a gene acquires a new function, a dif- sults from the transfer of DNA or ribonucleic acid
ferent process may occur. If one type of mutation (RNA) by a virus that has incorporated sequence
774 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

data from one host and passed it to a subsequent Choosing Trees


host. Horizontal gene transfer has become a key
Phylogenetic reconstruction methods can be
mechanism for increasing variation and speeding
grouped into three broad categories: distance,
up evolutionary change.
parsimony, and maximum likelihood. Distance
See literature cited for Sec. 4C.
methods convert molecular data into a matrix of
4C. Molecular Phylogenetics (OZ, JR, LM) pairwise distances between all sequences (a “dis-
tance matrix”), and then a tree is constructed that
Making Trees best fits pairwise distances to a bifurcating tree.
During the early 19th Century, ideas on how to Distance methods have the advantage of speed.
visualize relationships among organisms started Parsimony methods find the tree with the short-
to crystallize; biologists had long dreamed of the est branch lengths (smallest number of substitu-
tree-like diagram that would depict the evolu- tions). They are based on the idea of Occam’s
tionary history of all living organisms on Earth, razor—all things being equal, the simplest hypo-
but had trouble developing an organizing prin- thesis is the best. In this case the best tree is the
ciple. Initially, morphological (variations in form one that explains the aligned sequences with the
and shape) characters were used for classifica- fewest substitution events. Maximum likelihood
tion, but with the discovery of the microbial attempts to find a tree that has the highest prob-
world, it became apparent that this would be in- ability under the given model for sequence evo-
sufficient. In the middle of 20th Century, techno- lution. The best tree is the one for which the data
logical advances allowed proteins and, later, are most likely to have been produced.
genes to be sequenced. Biologists became enthu- Tree space—the set of all possible bifurcating
siastic about using molecular data to extract evo- trees relating a set of genes, proteins, or organ-
lutionary information. isms—is vast. For large data sets (more than 20
One can infer the history of a group of genes analyzed sequences), it is impossible to explore
using changes accumulated in DNA (or proteins) all of the possible tree topologies. Most programs
of homologous genes from different organisms attempt to sample areas of tree space intelligently
(see Sec. 4B). Tracing the divergence of genes and by using heuristic searches. This makes it impor-
gene families backward through time can be tant to assess the researcher’s confidence in any
modeled by a bifurcating tree of relationships. one tree, given the quality of the data, the evolu-
First, a data set must be carefully assembled from tionary model used, and the phylogenetic
genes descended from a common ancestral se- methodology. One of the most widely used tech-
quence (aka homologous genes). As an evolu- niques is bootstrapping. “Pseudosamples” of a
tionary term, homology is a “yes” or “no” deci- data set are created by resampling from the sites
sion, i.e., either two sequences are homologous, in an alignment and analyzing all pseudosamples
or they are not. Similarity should never be con- with the same phylogenetic reconstruction
fused with homology. Phylogeneticists often in- method. After completion of all analyses, the re-
fer homology on the basis of sequence similar- sults are compiled, and each possible branch on
ity—similar sequences are probably homologous. the tree receives a bootstrap support value equal
The reverse, however, cannot be said—homolo- to the percentage of pseudosamples for which
gous sequences can be so divergent that no se- that branch was reconstructed by the algorithm.
quence similarity is detectable. Bootstrap support values, therefore, provide a
Homologous sequences, once identified, need measure of how much support the data provide
to be aligned; amino acid or nucleotide positions for different parts of the tree when working with
(alignment sites) that correspond to a single an- a given model of evolutionary dynamics and a
cestral position in the sequence are lined up. The fixed methodology for phylogenetic reconstruc-
quality and accuracy of the resulting phyloge- tion.
netic tree crucially depend on the quality of the
Felsenstein, J. (2004) Inferring Phylogenies, Sinauer Associ-
alignment. To date, no reliable alignment algo-
ates, Sunderland, MA.
rithm has been developed, and any alignment re- Hillis, D.M., Moritz, C., and Mable, B.K. (1996) Molecular
mains subjective. While many computer algo- Systematics, Sinauer Associates, Sunderland, MA.
rithms for creating alignments exist, additional Li, W.-S. (1997) Molecular Evolution, Sinauer Associates,
manual adjustments are usually necessary. Sunderland, MA.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 775

Page, R.D.M. and Holmes, E.C. (1998) Molecular Evolution: ages the credibility of phylogenetic trees is still
A Phylogenetic Approach, Blackwell Science, Oxford, UK. debated.

Doolittle, W.F. (1999) Phylogenetic classification and the


Current Debates universal tree. Science 284, 2124–2128.
Gogarten J.P., Doolittle, W.F., and Lawrence, J.G. (2002)
Phylogenetics in the genomic era: credibility of Prokaryotic evolution in light of gene transfer. Mol. Biol.
ribosomal RNA (rRNA) as a universal molecular Evol. 19, 2226–2238.
marker and impact of horizontal gene transfer on Ribosomal Database Project II: http://rdp.cme.msu.edu/
inferences about organismal evolution Woese, C.R. (1987) Bacterial evolution. Microbiol. Rev. 51,
221–271.
Since the beginning of molecular phylogenet-
ics, researchers have hoped that gene-based trees How accurate is the molecular clock: can we
could be used to unambiguously recreate the his- reliably date evolutionary events using inferred
tory of terrean life. It was originally believed that phylogenetic trees and sparse fossil record?
all genes would reflect the same tree, given a per-
fect algorithm. The discovery of horizontal gene In 1965, Zuckerkandl and Pauling introduced
transfer, however, showed that this was not the the concept of a molecular clock. If genes accu-
case. In the absence of a single tree for all genes, mulate changes in a constant, clock-like fashion
phylogeneticists began to look for a single gene across all lineages, then the available fossil record
that was not transferred horizontally and, there- can be used to assign dates to some nodes in a
fore, could be used to recreate the true or basal phylogenetic tree (“calibration”). From these
tree of life. dates, it should be possible to extrapolate or in-
Carl Woese suggested rRNA as a universal terpolate when species diverged by assuming a
molecular marker that spans all domains of life constant rate of genetic change.
(Woese, 1987) (see Sec. 6A). As rRNA is highly More recent data suggest that most genes do
conserved, essential to cell function, and strongly not evolve in a clock-like way. Currently, there
tied to almost all biochemical processes, horizon- are various modifications of molecular clock
tal transfer seemed unlikely (although recently models (e.g., models that allow clocks to “tick” at
several instances of mosaic rRNAs have been de- different speeds in different parts of a phyloge-
scribed). Differences between small subunit netic tree as well as along different sites of an
rRNAs, along with other evidence (including bio- alignment). The question of how reliably one can
chemical characteristics and phylogenetics analy- place dates on speciation events remains highly
ses), led to the three domain classification system debated, especially when extrapolating to early
(Sec. 6A). rRNA has become the gold standard in evolutionary events. Integrating or constraining
taxonomy (especially in microbial taxonomy, molecular phylogeny with paleontology, and vice
where morphology cannot be used), and over versa, presents an exciting synergistic opportu-
100,000 partial and complete rRNA sequences are nity but requires caution and clearly defined as-
logged and available through the Ribosomal sumptions.
Database Project.
Often, however, phylogenies based on other Benner, S.A., Caraco, M.D., Thomson, J.M., and Gaucher,
genes contradict the rRNA phylogeny. The dif- E.A. (2002) Planetary biology—paleontological, geo-
logical, and molecular histories of life. Science 293,
ferences are attributed either to horizontal gene 864–868.
transfer or methodological artifacts. In recent Glazko, G.V., Koonin, E.V., and Rogozin, I.B. (2005) Mol-
years, large-scale sequencing projects that sought ecular dating: ape bones agree with chicken entrails.
to determine the sequence of nucleotides in every Trends Genet. 21, 89–92.
chromosome for a given organism led to the hope Graur, D. and Martin, W. (2004) Reading the entrails of
that complete genomes would provide an unam- chickens: molecular timescales of evolution and the il-
biguous Tree of Life (see Figs. 6.1–6.3). Unfortu- lusion of precision. Trends Genet. 20, 80–86.
Hedges, S.B. and Kumar, S. (2004) Precision of molecular
nately, these sequencing projects only reinforced
time estimates. Trends Genet. 20, 242–247.
the idea that different genes in one genome have Shields, R. (2004) Pushing the envelope on molecular dat-
different histories; horizontal gene transfer ap- ing. Trends Genet. 20, 221–222.
pears to be quite common. The frequency of hor- Zuckerkandl, E. and Pauling, L. (1965) Molecules as doc-
izontal transfer and the extent to which it dam- uments of evolutionary history. J. Theor. Biol. 8, 357–366.
776 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

4D. Rare Events in Evolution (LM, JR, OZ) Endosymbiosis, Mitochondria, and
Chloroplasts
Catastrophic Events
Frequently, associations between different or-
Environmental catastrophes give insight into ganisms impact the way those organisms live
how the environment can strongly constrain or and evolve. The term “symbiosis” literally means
direct evolution, even if by chance. Perhaps the living together and refers to any arrangement
earliest catastrophe encountered by fledgling where two or more organisms maintain a long-
life was the so-called heavy bombardment pe- term association. Symbiosis sometimes connotes
riod during early planetary accretion, a period mutual benefit (technically a mutualistic rela-
characterized by high rates and sizes of aster- tionship), though this is not necessary. Other
oid impacts that may have effectively vaporized symbioses include parasitic relationships—ben-
and, thereby, sterilized Earth’s oceans and shal- eficial to one at the expense of the other—and
low crust. Heavy bombardment persisted until commensalisms—benefit to one without cost or
roughly 3.9 billions of years ago (Ga), which is benefit to the other.
remarkable in that it preceded the earliest (al- Numerous lines of evidence suggest that mito-
beit controversial) signatures for life by only a chondria and chloroplasts represent cases of en-
few hundred million years. More recent impact dosymbiosis, wherein one organism has evolved
events may have been important in driving to live within the cells of another. Mitochondria,
adaptive change or even extinction, such as the present in almost all eukaryotes, are bacteria-like
Chicxulub impact that occurred at the time of entities responsible for respiration. They share
the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction (see similarity in structure, metabolism, and function
Sec. 2B and Fig. 2.2). to alpha-proteobacteria (see Figs. 6.2 and 6.3).
Global-scale glaciations—so-called “Snow- Chloroplasts and other plastids, responsible for
ball Earth” events—represent periods of near- photosynthesis within eukaryotes, resemble
total freezing over of Earth’s oceans, which may cyanobacteria (see Figs. 6.2 and 6.3). Chloroplasts
have occurred during two distinct periods dur- and mitochondria cannot survive without their
ing the late Proterozoic (see Sec. 2D for details host, as some essential genes have been trans-
about Snowball Earth theory). Both of these ferred to the host nucleus. At the same time, they
events are closely associated with major diver- are capable of reproduction and cannot be re-
sifications in the complexity of life. The first placed by the host cell if lost.
(Paleoproterozoic) event appears related to the Although no mitochondria are present in the
advent of oxygenic photosynthesis and the en- most basal members of the eukaryote lineage (see
suing development of aerobic respiration and Fig. 6.3), those organisms do contain remnants
complex multicellular eukaryotes, including (e.g., hydrogenosomes), and molecular phyloge-
metaphytes (plants). The second (Neoprotero- netics support a common ancestor for all mito-
zoic) event included the evolution of the other chondria. Therefore, one endosymbiotic event
major group of multicellular eukaryotes, probably occurred, which involved the encapsu-
namely, macroscopic metazoans (animals). The lation of an alpha-proteobacterium by the ances-
appearance of these multicellular groups pre- tor of all eukaryotes.
ceded the Cambrian explosion of well-skele- Chloroplasts present a more complex story.
tonized animal phyla that has dominated the One primary endosymbiosis has been hypothe-
Phanerozoic Eon, up to the present time. sized. A cyanobacterium was engulfed by a eu-
Oxygenic photosynthesis first arose in a prim- karyote that would become ancestor to red algae,
itive cyanobacterium-like organism, probably be- green algae, and plants. A quick perusal of the
tween 2.2 and 2.7 Ga, though possibly earlier. The tree of life, however, shows that photosynthesis
ensuing rise of oxygen in the atmosphere un- occurs not only in these organisms, but through-
doubtedly precipitated a major extinction event. out the Eukarya. Secondary endosymbioses must
It also precipitated the evolution of aerobic res- have occurred; algae were engulfed by other or-
piration and made possible a previously unten- ganisms, which led to euglenids, diatoms, di-
able range of metabolic capabilities based on O2 noflagellates, and a host of other photosynthetic
as a high-energy electron acceptor (see also Sec. protists. Some details of these events have been
2E). traced, but the full extent and number of these
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 777

secondary (and perhaps tertiary) endosymbioses frequent target biomolecules. Biological as well
remains unclear. as chemical contamination is, and should be, of
foremost concern in biomarker studies. Such con-
McFadden, G.I. (2001) Primary and secondary endosym- tamination is painstakingly guarded against by,
biosis and the origin of plastids. J. Phycol. 37, 951–959. for example, combining sterile techniques (when-
Margulis, L. (1981) Symbiosis in Cell Evolution, W.H. Free-
ever possible) with well-designed replicate and
man, New York.
control studies, or by avoiding, e.g., lipid-derived
lubricants in drill machinery that could poten-
tially leach into core samples. While this topic is
4E. Chemical Fossils (JR)
too detailed to be adequately covered here, the
Biomarkers (aka “chemical fossils”) are mole- question as to what steps were taken to prevent
cules associated with a particular biochemical contamination should be foremost on readers’
process or property. Their utility, which spans minds when interpreting biomarker studies.
multiple disciplines, ranges from measuring Characterization. Field samples contain a rich
physiology or disease states in living organisms mixture of molecules that must first be physically
to identifying the inhabitants of ancient ecosys- separated. First, solvent extraction is utilized for
tems. The last has particular importance for as- broad-scale separation (e.g., into amorphous/in-
trobiology. Though complex hydrocarbons ex- soluble kerogen versus volatile bitumen compo-
tracted from drill cores are the most commonly nents); then one or more chromatographic steps
cited biomarkers, atmospheric gases are often dis- are used for fine-scale separation. Most often,
cussed. One such involves molecular oxygen de- mass spectrometry is then used to identify bio-
rivatives as potential targets for NASA’s planned molecules against known libraries based on
Terrestrial Planet Finder mission. mass-to-charge ratios, fragmentation patterns,
In general, biomarker studies focus on: and stable isotope analysis. Intensive interroga-
Burial and preservation/alteration. As with tive techniques, such as nuclear magnetic reso-
any fossil, a biomarker must be adequately pre- nance and a gamut of spectroscopic methods, are
served before it can be rediscovered. Most or- also used commonly in analyzing biomarker
ganisms have highly tuned enzymatic salvage structure.
pathways for recycling even complex molecules. Identification. Using a biomarker as an indi-
Furthermore, most biomolecules are soluble com- cator for ancient organisms or environments
pounds that quickly degrade and are rapidly lost proves most useful when its biosynthesis, abun-
once the host cell dies. Even under ideal condi- dance, and distribution in modern organisms are
tions in sedimentary rocks, biomarkers undergo well constrained; there must be a library of in-
diagenesis (processes that affect sediments at or formation against which to compare a character-
near the surface at low temperature and pressure; ized biomarker. Furthermore, the processes that
compaction, cementation, etc.). They form a vari- alter and, thereby, erase the information con-
ety of derived compounds and can sometimes mi- tained within a biomarker’s structure must be
grate into different rock strata. Considerable re- taken into account. While progressive breakdown
search, originating in no small part from the of biomarkers, even those preserved in the most
petroleum exploration industry, is dedicated to mild of conditions, is invariable, some classes of
understanding how increasing pressures and biomarkers—lipid derivatives notable among
temperatures (so-called “thermal maturation”) them—are more recalcitrant to degradation. Cor-
alter and eventually erase the information con- relating biomarker distribution with organismal
tent of a biomarker. Typically covalent bonds taxonomy is ongoing, with the goal of under-
break. Target rocks for biomarker analysis often standing the specificity of certain biomarker
have high organic matter (kerogen and/or bitu- modifications and the presence or absence of bio-
men) content as this indicates a relatively mild marker classes across the tree of life. Among the
degree of thermal alteration. most informative ancient biomarkers are late
Isolation. Isolation focuses most often on rocks Archean (2.7 Ga) derivatives of hopanes and
where minimal or no metamorphism has oc- steranes—cholesterol-like molecules with chemi-
curred. Because lipids and other hydrocarbon- cal modifications. They appear to be highly spe-
rich molecules are generally more resistant to al- cific to several taxonomic groups, including eu-
teration and loss from host rocks, these are karyotes and cyanobacteria. Furthermore, the
778 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

enzymatic reactions that comprise an organism’s 2.7 billion years, may indicate not only the rise of
metabolism often leave isotopic fingerprints on eukaryotes but also the appearance of O2 in the
biomarker compounds. These can be used in a di- early atmosphere (Brocks et al., 1999).
agnostic fashion. For example, specific types of
autotrophic carbon fixation leave biomarkers. Hopanoids
Such research can offer an additional level of in- Hopanoids can be thought of as “prokaryotic
formation for potentially constraining biodiver- sterols.” They are thought to serve an analogous
sity or redox conditions in ancient environments role to sterols in regulating membrane fluidity
(see Sec. 2C). (but not requiring O2 in their biosynthesis). Some
modifications, in particular the position and
Brief Survey of Biomarkers geometry of methyl groups, are specific to certain
taxonomic groups, including some cyanobacteria
Alkanes/alkenes and proteobacteria (Summons et al., 1999).
Alkanes/alkenes and their modifications are
abundant biomarkers because they are essential Precambrian Biomarkers
in membrane synthesis in most organisms. Based While the gamut of biomarkers, especially
on the number of carbon atoms and branching from the Phanerozoic, is too extensive to be de-
patterns, some alkane biomarkers are broadly, if tailed here, substantially fewer informative Pre-
not specifically, diagnostic (e.g., algaenan as a bio- cambrian biomarkers are available. They are,
marker for algae). nonetheless, of particular importance to under-
standing early, prokaryote-dominated environ-
Isoprenoids ments on Earth (and possibly elsewhere). A few
Isoprenoids are five-carbon compounds used of these are summarized below. Brocks and Sum-
ubiquitously in the biosynthesis of larger bio- mons (2003) and Simoneit (2002) give a much
molecules (e.g., carotenoids and phytol). Iso- more detailed cross section of these and other ex-
prenoid polymers of varying length and branch- amples.
ing pattern are commonly retrieved biomarkers, 2.7–2.5 Ga. Both hopanoid and sterol deriva-
with some—such as archaeol, thought to be spe- tives have been recovered from Archean-aged
cific for the domain Archaea—providing taxo- rocks that have been subject to only mild thermal
nomic information despite their abundance in or- alteration (Brocks et al., 1999; Summons et al.,
ganisms. Isoprene derivatives can also be highly 1999). Hopanoids are found with the 3-methyl
specific to some organisms. For example, the and 3-methyl substitutions, consistent with bio-
carotenoid isorenieratane is found only in a sin- markers found in modern cyanobacteria and
gle family of photosynthetic (green sulfur) bacte- methane-oxidizing bacteria. Sterol derivatives
ria. It has been used recently to support anoxic have side chain modifications only found in mod-
sulfidic ocean conditions that accompanied the ern eukaryotes and explicitly require O2 in their
Permian-Triassic mass extinction (Grice et al., biosynthesis. Taken together, this evidence sug-
2005). gests that at least low levels of oxygen were avail-
able from cyanobacterial oxygenic photosynthe-
sis.
Sterols
2.2–2.0 Ga. Branched alkanes have been recov-
Sterols are an incredibly diverse group of ered that may correlate with prokaryotic sulfide
biomolecules (e.g., cholesterol, lanosterol, cy- oxidation. While that is present across the tree of
cloartenol), synthesized ultimately from iso- life, it may be a proxy for the use of oxygen in bi-
prenoids and found almost exclusively in eu- ological electron transfer chains (Kenig et al.,
karyotes (but also in a few bacteria). They 2003). This particular biomarker class is also
function in cell-cell signaling and as controls of found extensively in more recent rocks.
membrane fluidity. Though sterol biosynthesis 1.7–1.5 Ga. Derivatives of carotenoid pigments
shares the same basic biosynthetic steps with a consistent with purple sulfur and green sulfur
variety of isoprene derivatives, O2 is required for bacteria have been recovered. These groups in-
sterol synthesis in all known organisms. Thus the clude many species of anoxygenic phototrophs
presence of sterols, which extends back perhaps (Brocks and Summons, 2003).
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 779

FIG. 4.1. Important events in the Precambrian. Ga, billions of years ago.
780 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

1.6 Ga. The presence of well-preserved steranes biosignatures (objects, molecules, or patterns that
with eukaryote-specific modifications, tempo- can be explained only by biology), which allow
rally consistent with eukaryotic microfossils for the detection of past life-related activities (see
(Summons et al., 1999), has been found. Fig. 4.1).
Many biological characters used to differentiate
Talking Points members of the three domains of life—Archaea,
Bacteria, and Eukarya (Sec. 6A)—rarely survive
Are ancient biomarkers diagnostic for fossilization and so are not generally available to
specific organisms? the palaeontologist. Moreover, geological pro-
Given the small number of modern organisms cesses such as metamorphism (high temperature
that have been sampled and characterized, and and pressure alteration of rocks in Earth’s crust),
the vast number of ancient, extinct organisms that diagenesis, and tectonics (processes that cause
never will be sampled, how can we best appraise major structural features of Earth’s crust) erased
the diagnostic value of an ancient biomarker? most of the early record of life. Nevertheless, in a
few areas of the globe, sedimentary rocks are bet-
ter preserved and contain traces of past life. They
Are ancient biomarkers diagnostic for
indicate that microorganisms inhabited Earth dur-
specific processes?
ing the Archean (before 2.5 Ga) and had devel-
Furthermore, could the appearance of bio- oped metabolisms similar to many living mi-
markers, e.g., for cyanobacteria, correlate with the crobes. Combined approaches, including geology,
evolution of an unrelated process, such as oxy- geochemistry, and paleontology, as well as in-
genic photosynthesis? sights from molecular phylogenetics and micro-
biology, are necessary to better understand the
Brocks, J.J., Logan, G.A., Buick, R., and Summons, R.E. early evolution of terrean life.
(1999) Archean molecular fossils and the early rise of
eukaryotes. Science 285, 1033–1036. Knoll, A.H. (2003) Life on a Young Planet: The First Three
Brocks, J.J. and Summons, R.E. (2003) Sedimentary hy- Billion Years of Evolution on Earth, Princeton University
drocarbons, biomarkers for early life. In Treatise in Geo- Press, Princeton, NJ.
chemistry, Vol. 8: Biogeochemistry, edited by W.H.
Schlesinger, Elsevier, Oxford, UK, pp. 63–115.
Grice, K., Cao, C., Love, G.D., Bottcher, M.E., Twitchett,
Isotopic Record
R.J., Grosjean, E., Summons, R.E., Turgeon, S.C., Dun-
ning, W., and Jin, Y. (2005) Photic zone euxinia during Each chemical element is defined by how many
the Permian-Triassic Superanoxic Event. Science 307, protons can be found in the nucleus. An element
706–709. may have differing numbers of neutrons, how-
Kenig, F., Simons, D.H., Crich, D., Cowen, J.P., Ventura,
ever, and thus various isotopes. The name of an
G.T., Rehbein-Khaliliy, T., Brown, T.C., and Anderson,
K.B. (2003) Branched aliphatic alkanes with quaternary isotope reflects the total number of protons and
substituted carbon atoms in modern and ancient geo- neutrons so that carbon, with six protons, has
logic samples. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 100, 12554– three isotopes, 12C, 13C, and 14C with six, seven,
12558. or eight neutrons, respectively.
Knoll, A.H. (1999) A new molecular window on early life. Isotopic signals in preserved organic matter
Science 285, 1025–1026. (e.g., bioprecipitated minerals) suggest an early
Simoneit, B.R.T. (2002) Molecular indicators (biomarkers)
microbial biosphere. Living organisms use pref-
of past life. Anat. Rec. 268, 186–195.
Summons, R.E., Jahnke, L.L., Logan, G.A., and Hope, J.M. erentially lighter isotopes in their metabolism.
(1999) 2-Methylhopanoids as biomarkers for cyanobac- Photosynthesis, for example, prefers to incorpo-
terial oxygenic photosynthesis. Nature 398, 554–557. rate 12C over 13C, a process called “fractionation,”
which causes a different ratio of the two isotopes
in organic matter than that found in abiological
4F. Paleontology (EJ)
systems. Carbon, sulfur, and iron isotopes have
The search for past or present life beyond Earth been particularly important to astrobiology.
requires a solid understanding of life’s origin and Carbon isotopes from the oldest known sedi-
evolution on the only planet on which life is mentary rocks (3.8–3.6 Ga) in the Isua Greenstone
known—Earth. Life had a profound effect on the succession, Greenland, have values fitting the
landscapes and atmospheres of Earth and has left range of fractionation consistent with biological
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 781

activity (autotrophic carbon fixation), though Grassineau, N. (2002) Questioning the evidence for
some debate remains over what this represents. Earth’s oldest fossils. Nature 416, 76–81.
Most of the Greenland record has been re- Schopf, J.W., Kudryavysev, A.B., Agresti, D.G., Wdowiak,
T., and Czaja, A.D. (2002) Laser-Raman imagery of
assessed, and the biological interpretation seems
Earth’s earliest fossils. Nature 416, 73–76.
to hold for only one area. Caution is required as
abiological chemical reactions in hydrothermal
Stromatolites (layered carbonate formations
fluids may produce abiological organic matter
caused by microbial communities) occur
with similar carbon isotope fractionation pat-
throughout the rock record, starting in the early
terns.
Archean (3.4 Ga). They are generally interpreted
Hayes, J.M., Kaplan, I.R., and Wedeking, K.W. (1983) Pre-
to be built or occupied by bacteria, although abi-
cambrian organic chemistry, preservation of the record. ological processes can produce similar structures
In Earth’s Earliest Biosphere, Its Origins and Evolution, and the biological nature of the oldest examples
edited by J.W. Schopf, Princeton University Press, has been questioned. Other sedimentary struc-
Princeton, NJ, pp. 93–134. tures in 2.9-Ga siliciclastic (containing mostly sil-
Shen, Y. and Buick, R. (2004) The antiquity of microbial icate minerals) rocks also preserve signatures of
sulphate reduction. Earth Sci. Rev. 64, 243–272. bacterial mats.
Strauss, H. (2003) Sulphur isotopes and the early Ar-
chaean sulphur cycle. Precambrian Res. 126, 349–361.
Grotzinger, J.P. and Rothman, D.H. (1996) An abiotic
Van Zuilen, M.A., Lepland, A., and Arrhenius, G. (2002)
model for stromatolite morphogenesis. Nature 383,
Reassessing the evidence for the earliest traces of life.
423–425.
Nature 418, 627–630.

The isotopic record also gives information on Fossil Record of Bacteria and Archaea
the composition of the early atmosphere and Dating the earliest structural evidence for uni-
oceans. Several independent lines of geologic ev- cellular organisms presents multiple difficulties.
idence suggest that significant levels of oxygen Abundant filamentous (thread-shaped) and coc-
first accumulated in the atmosphere in the late coidal (rod-shaped) carbonaceous structures
Archean (see Sec. 2E and Fig. 2.3 in particular). have been described from the last half of the
Recently, a study of sulfur isotope fractionation Archean Eon; however, their biological origin
dated this oxygenation event at 2.32 Ga (for a dif- and pattern of deposition have been debated.
ferent view, see Ohmoto, 1996). Abiotic processes can synthesize products that re-
semble the morphologies of some Archean mi-
Bekker, A., Holland, H.D., Wang, P.L., Rumble, D., Stein,
H.J., Hannah, J.L., Coetzee, L.L., and Beukes, N.J. (2004) crofossils. This suggests that simple morphology
Dating the rise of atmospheric oxygen. Nature 427, is not sufficient to prove biogenicity (biological
117–120. origin). Problems in determining biogenicity in-
Ohmoto, H. (1996) Evidence of pre-2.2 Ga paleosols for clude artifacts of sample preparation, contamina-
the early evolution of atmospheric oxygen and terres- tion by younger microorganisms, and isotopic
trial biotas. Geology 24, 1135–1138. fractionation by nonbiological organic chemistry
in hydrothermal settings. Biogenicity of mi-
The Earliest Fossils crostructures from well-dated rocks within well-
The earliest fossil record is controversial. The constrained paleoenvironments of deposition can
famous 3.5-Ga Apex chert microfossils, first in- be clearly established only when morphology and
terpreted as fossilized filamentous cyanobacteria organic chemistry are considered along with
or bacteria, have been recently reassessed. Sev- degradational criteria, such as distinctive cell di-
eral authors have presented evidence that they vision pattern, plasmolysed cell content (dark
are abiological organic matter that was produced blob inside fossil cells corresponds to shrunk cy-
by hydrothermal processes around mineral casts. toplasm), pigmentation gradients in colonies,
Careful reconstruction of environmental deposi- spatial distribution, and population variation.
tion of sediments or precipitation of minerals is Development of reliable criteria of biogenicity
crucial in the interpretation of biosignatures. and instrumentation are crucial for assessing
claims of ancient or extraterrean life.
Brasier, M.D., Green, O.R., Jephcoat, A.P., Kleppe, A.K., Specific morphological evidence for the do-
van Kranendonk, M., Lindsay, J.F., Steele, A., and main Archaea is not known from any part of the
782 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

fossil record. Inference from phylogenies and car- Ga shales in Spitsbergen indicate the appearance
bon isotope signals suggest their presence by at of stramenopiles (a group including diatoms,
least 2.8 Ga. xanthophytes, and brown algae) and a secondary
The oldest fossils well enough preserved to be endosymbiosis (see endosymbiosis in Sec. 4D).
recognized as members of an extant (still living) Fossil evidence for fungi has also been recently
group appear in the early Proterozoic. Endolithic suggested to date from at least the Neoprotero-
cyanobacteria occur in cherts from the 2.15 Ga zoic [750 millions of years ago (Ma)] and pos-
Belcher Group, Canada. Akinetes (reproductive sibly the Mesoproterozoic (1,500 Ma), though
spores) of cyanobacteria provide evidence of the Mesoproterozoic record remains to be con-
cyanobacteria with cell differentiation in 2.1-Ga firmed. Fossil testate amoebae (amoebae produc-
cherts from Gabon. ing an organic or mineral test or “shell”) in
750-Ma rocks document early eukaryotic bio-
Altermann, W. and Kazmierczak, J. (2003) Archean mi- mineralization, predation (suggested by the pres-
crofossils: a reappraisal of early life on Earth. Res. Mi- ence of hemispherical holes), and heterotrophy
crobiol. 154, 611–617.
(amoebae eat other organisms). Fungi and testate
Garcia-Ruiz, J.M., Hyde, S.T., Carnerup, A.M., Christy,
A.G., Van Kranendonk, M.J., and Welham, N.J. (2003)
amoebae provide a firm calibration point for the
Self-assembled silica-carbonate structures and detec- great clade that includes animals, fungi, and the
tion of ancient microfossils. Science 302, 1194–1197. amoebozoans.
Hofmann, H.J. (1976) Precambrian microflora, Belcher Is- The Phanerozoic is marked by a remarkable di-
lands, Canada: significance and systematics. J. Palaeon- versification of animal life. Through the Protero-
tol. 50, 1040–1073. zoic, there is also a rich record of macroscopic
Knoll, A.H. and Golubic, S. (1992) Proterozoic and living carbonaceous compressions interpreted as multi-
cyanobacteria. In Early Organic Evolution: Implications
cellular algae, or parts of microbial mats. Fol-
for Mineral and Energy Resources, edited by M. Schid-
lowski, S. Golubic, and M.M. Kimberley, Springer-Ver- lowing the Neoproterozoic glaciations, the early
lag, New York, pp. 450–462. Ediacarian acritarchs (630–550 Ma) increase in
diversity with the evolution of forms bearing reg-
Fossil Record of Eukaryotes ularly arranged processes. Macroscopic com-
pressions record a high diversity of forms, which
The oldest remains of possible eukaryotes are include metazoans and multicellular algae. The
carbonaceous impressions of coiled ribbon called 600-Ma Doushantuo Formation of China hosts
Grypania. Reported in 1.87-Ga iron deposits, they multicellular green, red, and possibly brown al-
have been interpreted as green algae (based on gae, as well as animal embryos, possible stem
their large macroscopic size and regular coiled group cnidarians (e.g., corals), and putative
shape), though their biological nature has been sponges. Ornamented acritarchs disappear just
questioned. Younger, better-preserved Grypania before the Phanerozoic and only large simple
with transversal striations occur in 1.4-Ga rocks. sphaeromorphs (sphere shapes) are found. The
A moderate diversity of protists (unicellular Phanerozoic starts with a burst in diversity and
eukaryotes) represented by acritarchs (organic- abundance of protists (including skeletal forms)
walled microfossils with unknown biological and marine animals.
affinities) occurs in mid-Proterozoic shales (sili-
clastic rocks) and demonstrate the evolution of Butterfield, N.J. (2000) Bangiomorpha pubescens n. gen., n.
sp.: implications for the evolution of sex, multicellular-
cells with a nucleus and a cytoskeleton. These
ity and the Mesoproterozoic-Neoproterozoic radiation
protists may be plain spheres or have walls or- of eukaryotes. Paleobiology 26, 386–404.
namented with concentric ridges, irregularly dis- Butterfield, N.J. (2005) Probable proterozoic fungi. Paleo-
tributed protrusions, or polygonal plates. biology 31, 165–182.
Evidence for photosynthetic eukaryotes Javaux, E.J., Knoll, A.H., and Walter, M.R. (2001) Mor-
abounds in the late Proterozoic. Exquisite preser- phological and ecological complexity in early eukary-
vation of 1.2-Ga red algae (affiliated with ban- otic ecosystems. Nature 412, 66–69.
Javaux, E.J., Knoll, A.H., and Walter, M.R. (2003) Recog-
giophytes) documents the evolution of multicel-
nizing and interpreting the fossils of early eukaryotes.
lularity, sexual reproduction, and eukaryotic Orig. Life Evol. Biosph. 33, 75–94.
photosynthesis (involving a primary endosym- Porter, S.M. (2004) The fossil record of early eukaryotic
biosis). Xanthophyte vaucherian algae from the diversification. In Paleontological Society Papers, Vol. 10:
1-Ga Lakhanda Formation, Siberia, and 0.7–0.8- Neoproterozoic-Cambrian Biological Revolutions, edited by
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 783

J.H. Lipps and B.M. Waggober, Paleontological Society, to the inclination of the planet’s orbit relative to
Washington, DC, pp. 35–50. the observer on Earth. Because we are looking at
Xiao, S.H., Zhang, Y., and Knoll, A.H. (1998) Three-di- the effects of the star moving closer and farther,
mensional preservation of algae and animal embryos
we would prefer to be close to the plane of orbit.
in a Neoproterozoic phosphorite. Nature 391, 553–558.
Only the radial component of the star’s velocity
is measured, and the mass of the companion ob-
Abbreviations
ject is known only to within a factor of sin i, where
DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid; Ga, billions of i is the inclination angle of the planet’s orbit as
years ago; Ka, nonsynonymous substitutions; Ks, seen from Earth. (If the orbital inclination is not
synonymous substitutions; Ma, millions of years measurable by other means, a lower limit may be
ago; RNA, ribonucleic acid; rRNA, ribosomal assigned.)
RNA. RV searches provide estimates of the planet’s
mass, eccentricity, and average distance from its
host star. They have been, by far, the most suc-
cessful of the search methodologies and have dis-
Chapter 5. Planet Detection and covered the overwhelming majority of the 200
Characterization (JA) currently known extrasolar planets. However, no
current or planned RV search program is capable
5A. Methods of Planet Detection (CL) of detecting Earth-mass planets in the habitable
The observation of extrasolar planets can be ex- zone (see Sec. 5B) around solar-type stars; at 1 as-
tremely difficult. The distances involved, as well tronomical unit (AU) from a 1 solar-mass star, no
as the faintness of any planet relative to its par- planet smaller than roughly a dozen Earth masses
ent star, make it nearly impossible to make direct can currently be detected through the Doppler
observations. Recent advances in technology and shift it induces on its parent star.
elegant new methodologies make it possible to
infer, and sometimes even directly see, these dis- Astrometry
tant objects (Fig. 5.1).
Astrometry can infer the existence of a planet
from periodic motions by the host star. The mo-
Radial Velocity (RV) (aka “Doppler
tion observed in astrometry is the movement
Searches”)
of the star in the celestial sphere. Because of the
Extrasolar planets have been observed indi- vast distances, these motions are very small—per-
rectly by tracking the RV of stars. Every star with haps less than a few microseconds of arc
planets is affected by their mass. As planets orbit (1/3,600,000,000th of a degree viewed from Earth).
their parent star, they periodically pull it back Such precision necessitates either space-based ob-
and forth. Movement toward and away from servations or the use of adaptive optic systems.
Earth changes the nature of the light that we re- Additionally, the minimum mass of a de-
ceive from the star in question. These “Doppler tectable planet increases directly with stellar dis-
shifts” contract and expand the wavelength of tance, meaning that only the nearest few thou-
light waves, which makes their light bluer or red- sand stars can be studied by existing or planned
der when observed than it was when emitted. astrometric programs. However, unlike the RV
(Wavelength contraction corresponds to in- method, the minimum mass of a detectable planet
creased frequency and bluer light. Wavelength increases for larger planetary orbits, so that with
expansion corresponds to decreased frequency sufficiently large time periods for observations,
and redder light.) RV search programs look for this technique is potentially sensitive to 1 Earth
very small, periodic wavelength shifts in the spec- mass planets orbiting any of several hundred
tra of the parent star (50 m/s to as low as stars nearest to the Sun.
1 m/s with current instrumentation). Because the Astrometric methods provide estimates of the
planet’s gravitational pull must be large enough planet’s mass, eccentricity, and average distance
to move its parent star significantly, the potential from its host star. When combined with RV data,
for detection of planets with this method in- the inclination angle of the planetary system can
creases with planet mass and decreases with or- be highly constrained, which greatly reduces the
bital radius. Additionally, the method is sensitive uncertainty in the planet’s estimated mass.
784 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

FIG. 5.1. Known extrasolar planets as of February 2005: (A) mass distribution and (B) orbital characteristics.

Transit photometry blocks the starlight from reaching Earth. This


dimming can be as much as a percent or two of
In planetary systems aligned so that we view the total light from the star and is readily de-
them “edge-on,” we can detect planets as they tectable from even small, ground-based observa-
transit (or “eclipse”) their parent star. As- tories. However, the method is limited to stars
tronomers look for periodic decreases in star with planetary systems “edge-on” to Earth (the
brightness as its planet (or planets) temporarily orbital plane less than roughly 10° off the line of
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 785

observation), with planets typically less than 3 Current Debates


AU away from their parent star. How biased are our current observations of ex-
While these difficulties greatly limit its utility, trasolar planets? What is the distribution of ex-
current precision limits for the photometric trasolar planets as a function of their stellar prop-
method are sufficient to detect low-mass planets erties, such as mass, metallicity, age, and galactic
in habitable orbits, which makes it unique among environment?
planet-search techniques (see the Kepler mission,
noted below). Further, details of the transit pro- Fischer, D.A., Marcy, G.W., Butler, R.P., and Vogt, S.S.
vide estimates of the planet’s radius, which can (2002) Characteristics of extrasolar planets. In Astro-
be combined with RV studies and the inclination nomical Society of the Pacific Conference Series 324: Debris
angle to provide a highly precise estimate of the Disks and the Formation of Planets: A Symposium in Mem-
planet’s mass and density. Follow-up spec- ory of Fred Gillett, edited by L. Caroff, L.J. Moon, D.
troscopy of the host star taken both during and Backman, and E. Praton, Astronomical Society of the
Pacific, San Francisco, pp. 133–142.
out of a planetary transit can also potentially pro-
Laws, C., Gonzalez, G., Walker, K.M., Tyagi, S.,
vide information on the composition of the Dodsworth, J., Snider, K., and Suntzeff, N.B. (2003) Par-
planet’s atmosphere. ent stars of extrasolar planets. VII. New abundance
analyses of 30 systems. Astron. J. 125, 2664–2677.
Direct Imaging
Some Important Research Groups
Direct imaging methods seek to isolate and ob-
serve light coming from the planet itself, rather There are 59 groups listed as carrying out Ex-
than inferring its existence from effects on its host trasolar Planet Search programs on the Extraso-
star. This method offers direct constraints on size lar Planets Encyclopedia website (www.obspm.
and orbital characteristics, and also provides in- fr/encycl/encycl.html).
formation on the planet’s atmospheric composi- Additionally, there are 18 space-based mis-
tion. Unfortunately, contrast issues between plan- sions with at least a partial charge to search for
ets and their host stars make this method by far and characterize extrasolar planets. Notable
the most technically challenging—even Jupiter- among these are the following:
mass planets are a billion times fainter in visible
light than their host stars. Strategies to mitigate • Space Interferometry Mission (SIM). SIM, de-
this have focused on combinations of (a) block- signed for astrometric searches, will have the
ing the light from the host star and (b) conduct- capacity to detect Earth-like planets around the
ing observations in the infrared (IR), where the nearest several hundred stars. It is planned for
contrast between planet and star approaches a launch in 2015.
minimum value of 106. These approaches have • Kepler. This photometric survey for transiting
seen some measure of success; in September 2004 planets will examine over 100,000 nearby stars
researchers using a near-IR camera on the Hub- continuously (in a region of the sky approxi-
ble space telescope reported the detection of a 3–7 mately 100 square degrees) in an attempt to de-
Jupiter-mass planet in a 55 AU orbit around a tect transiting planets. This survey is notable
nearby brown dwarf. This system, however, with for its capacity to detect Earth-mass planets
a large planet in a distant orbit around a very faint within the habitable zone. It is scheduled for
substellar object represents a best-case scenario launch in 2008.
for detection—direct imaging of a rocky planet in • Darwin and Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF). These
a habitable zone orbit around a solar-type star re- two missions are being studied by ESA (Dar-
mains beyond the capacity of any current astro- win) and NASA (TPF). Both involve a space-
nomical instruments. based interferometer/coronograph telescope.
They are intended to provide direct imaging
Des Marais, D.J., Harwit, M.O., Jucks, K.W., Kasting, J.F., and spectroscopy sufficient to detect Earth-
Lin, D.N., Lunine, J.L., Schneider, J., Seager, S., Traub,
mass planets within the habitable zone as well
W.A., and Woolf, N.J. (2002) Remote sensing of plane-
tary properties and biosignatures on extrasolar terres- as characterize their atmospheres. Their mis-
trial planets. Astrobiology 2, 153–181. sion represents the most probable observa-
Seager, S. (2003) The search for extrasolar Earth-like plan- tional tools to search for biomarkers such as
ets. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 208, 113–124. methane, water, and ozone on extrasolar rocky
786 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

planets; however, they are both still in the de- temperature of a planetary environment is a func-
sign stage, with no target launch date set. tion of the balance between heating and radiation
into space. In this section, the word “planet” will
5B. Planet Habitability (AvM) be used to signify a large rocky body that orbits
the central star (a traditional “rocky planet”) or
A habitable planet has traditionally been de-
another large body in the system (traditionally
scribed as one that can sustain terrean-like life on
called a “satellite” or “moon”).
its surface or subsurface for a significant period
of time. However, this definition is constantly be-
ing redefined as we hypothesize or discover new Surface environments
environments in which life can sustain itself.
For surface environments, heat comes primar-
The main requirements are the presence and
ily from the radiation absorbed from the central
stability of liquid water over long time periods
star (or stars), and cooling is mainly limited by
and the availability of the basic organic building
the ability of the atmosphere to retain heat. Stel-
blocks of life (C, H, N, O, P, and S; building
lar heat input will be sensitive to the size of the
blocks; and nutrients; see Sec. 3A). Water is the
central star (see Sec. 1A and Fig. 1.2) and the or-
most fundamental constituent for the assemblage
bital distance. We can estimate an “habitable
and functionality of life on Earth.
zone” or range of liquid water for a given star
type, planet size, and orbital distance (Fig. 5.2).
Basic Habitability Criterion: Temperature
For a G-type star such as our Sun, the HZ lies be-
The most fundamental requirement for liquid tween 0.95 AU and 1.37 AU.
water is a clement mean environmental tempera- The surface temperature can be increased if the
ture. Temperatures between 0°C (273 K) and incident radiation can be retained by the atmos-
100°C (373 K) are necessary for pure water to form phere. The “greenhouse effect” occurs when the
a liquid at standard temperature and pressure. atmosphere is transparent to light at shorter
Pressure and solutes, however, can have a large wavelengths [such as ultraviolet (UV) or visible
impact, and life has been observed in liquids be- light] but absorbs light at longer wavelengths
tween 20°C (253 K) and 121°C (394 K) (see Fig. (such as IR heat). The shorter wavelength light is
6.6 and Sec. 6C). On rocky planets or moons, this converted to heat when it hits the surface and is
environment can be on or below the surface. The then retained by the atmosphere, which increases

10
Tidal Locking Rocky
B Planet
Limit
Region
Stellar Mass (MSun)

A
F
1 G
K
Solar System
HZ
M

0.1
0.0 0.01 0.1 1 10 100

Orbital Distance (AU)


FIG. 5.2. The habitable zone (HZ) around main sequence stars.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 787

the temperature near the surface. The extent of the tidal field is strong). Thus, the orbiting body
heating depends on the composition of the at- needs some additional gravitational effect to
mosphere, and for thick atmospheres of mole- maintain an eccentric orbit. For Jupiter’s system,
cules such as carbon dioxide and methane, the this comes in the form of orbital resonances (the
surface temperature may be raised significantly. orbital periods of Ganymede, Europa, and Io
The greenhouse effect may, therefore, extend the form the ratio 4:2:1) (see Sec. 2A).
habitable zone out to 2.4 AU for G-type stars.
To complicate matters, changes in stellar radia- Additional potential habitable environments
tion output (e.g., luminosity, color), planetary orbit
Theoretically, life is possible anywhere liquid
(e.g., inclination, eccentricity), and planetary his-
water and nutrients exist. Specifically, the sur-
tory (e.g., ice ages, carbon dioxide sinks) may re-
faces of icy grains at the water sublimation level
sult in global temperature changes over time. It re-
in the atmospheres of giant planets and the inte-
mains unclear to what extent life might tolerate
riors of hydrated or icy small bodies such as as-
lapses in “habitability,” but the term “continuously
teroids or comets should be considered. The po-
habitable zone” (CHZ) is often used to denote the
tential for the in situ origin of life in these
region around a star within which planets with sta-
environments, however, is low.
ble orbits could remain habitable long enough for
complex life to evolve. It is usually defined with re-
spect to some time interval (the CHZ for the Sun Factors That Limit Habitability
over 4.6 billion years is approximately 0.95–1.15
AU), but since the definitions of both “habitability” Many features of our Solar System and their ef-
and “complex life” remain unclear, this terminol- fects on habitability have been investigated. It re-
ogy can become problematic. mains unclear, however, whether these details
are specific to Earth and terrean life or they can
be generalized to all habitable planets.
Subsurface environments
In subsurface environments, heat comes from Stellar mass
within the planet due to internal processes (as on
More massive stars have shorter lifetimes than
Earth) or an external force such as tidal com-
less massive stars. F-type stars, for instance, have
pression (as on Io). Cooling is limited by insula-
lifetimes of less than 1 billion years, which may
tion from surface layers. Internal heating is ini-
limit the probability of life arising on one of their
tially generated by conduction of latent heat
satellites. More massive stars also emit a larger
created during the formation of the planet, but
fraction of their light in UV and x-ray wave-
additional heating comes from the decay of ra-
lengths, which would have a detrimental impact
dioactive isotopes. Radioactive decay makes only
on organic processes not protected by a thick at-
a small contribution but may be enough to main-
mosphere. Stars less massive than the Sun give
tain liquid water in a subsurface layer (a possi-
off most of their light at longer wavelengths,
bility on Mars).
which would potentially inhibit biological
Internal heat can also be generated by tidal
processes, such as photosynthesis, that provide
forces in orbiting bodies with eccentric orbits (a
energy for the biosphere. (See Chapter 1, specifi-
moon orbiting a planet or a planet orbiting a star).
cally Fig. 1.2, for properties of stars.)
The tidal force (differential gravity, a stretching
force) increases and decreases with the body’s or-
Planetary dynamics
bital distance, which causes the internal structure
of the orbiting body to compress and expand pe- Orbital dynamics and interactions with other
riodically. The process creates frictional heating, planets in the system can affect the habitability of
which can be conducted throughout the body and a planet. To maintain a consistent temperature,
may be enough to maintain a large subsurface an Earth-like planet must have a nearly circular
ocean (hypothesized for Enceladus—orbiting Sat- orbit, or it will undergo extreme temperature
urn—and possibly for Callisto, Europa, and changes. Eccentric orbits also increase the possi-
Ganymede—orbiting Jupiter). bility of collisions between planets; an eccentric
The central object will tend to circularize the giant planet can strongly inhibit stable orbits of
orbits of closer orbiting bodies (in regions where other planets. All the planets in our system have
788 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

relatively circular orbits; however, many extraso- also Fig. 2.3 and Secs. 2E and 4D). Thus, an oxy-
lar systems contain planets with highly eccentric genic atmosphere opened the way for aerobic and
orbits. Smaller bodies such as asteroids and multicellular life as well as land-based life, which
comets can also affect the formation and survival does not have water to protect it from solar radi-
of life. The composition of these bodies makes ation.
them ideal for delivering water (Sec. 2A) and or-
Des Marais, D.J., Harwit, M.O., Jucks, K.W., Kasting, J.F.,
ganics (Sec. 2B) during planet formation. On the
Lin, D.N., Lunine, J.L., Schneider, J., Seager, S., Traub,
other hand, bombardment of a planet may kill de- W.A., and Woolf, N.J. (2002) Remote sensing of plane-
veloping biospheres, a process known as “impact tary properties and biosignatures on extrasolar terres-
frustration” (Sec. 4D). The possibility of habitable trial planets. Astrobiology 2, 153–181.
zones around binary and trinary stars remains Ford, E.B., Seager, S., and Turner, E.L. (2001) Characteri-
unclear. zation of extrasolar terrestrial planets from diurnal pho-
tometric variability. Nature 412, 885–887.
Kasting, J.F. and Catling, D. (2003) Evolution of a habit-
Presence of satellites able planet. Annu. Rev. Astron. Astrophys. 41, 429–463.
Earth is unusual with respect to the other rocky Kasting, J.F., Whitmire, D.P., and Reynolds, R.T. (1993)
Habitable zones around main sequence stars. Icarus 101,
planets in our Solar System in that it has one large
108–128.
moon in a circular orbit. This could play a sig- Laskar, J. and Robutel, P. (1993) The chaotic obliquity of
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of Earth toward the Sun—its “obliquity”—is rel- Morbidelli, A., Chambers, J., Lunine, J.I., Petit, J.M.,
atively stable over very long time periods. With- Robert, F.M., Valsecchi, G.B., and Cyr, K.E. (2000)
out the Moon, Earth’s obliquity could potentially Source regions and timescales for the delivery of water
vary drastically over million-year time scales and to the Earth. Meteoritics Planet. Sci. 35, 1309–1320.
cause major surface temperature variations. Sleep, N.H., Zahnle, K.J., Kasting, J.F., and Morowitz, H.J.
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The internal structure of a planet will have a
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direct impact on its habitability. On Earth, inter-
nal heating mechanisms result in plate tectonics
5C. Exploration and Characterization of
and volcanism, both of which play an integral
Mars (JA)
role in the exchange of materials in the atmos-
phere and oceans. On Mars, the cessation of plate Current Conditions and Exploration History
tectonics may have been critical in the loss of a
Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun, is
thick atmosphere and surface water. Addition-
roughly one-half the size of Earth and 1/10th the
ally, the differentiation of interior layers of a
mass. Its surface area is about equal to that of the
planet can affect energy and material transport.
continents on Earth. A martian day (called a sol)
This differentiation causes Europa and
lasts 24 h 40 min, and a martian year lasts 687
Ganymede to have the potential for liquid water
Earth days (667 sols). The tilt of the martian ro-
layers. Callisto is undifferentiated and does not.
tational axis (25°) is nearly equal to Earth’s; thus,
(See also Fig. 2.1B for planetary properties.)
Mars experiences similar seasonal variations.
Mars has retained a thin atmosphere, roughly
Biological feedback
6 millibars (6/1000ths as dense as on Earth). The
Once life forms, its impact on the environment atmospheric composition is 95% CO2, 2.7% N2,
will have profound effects on habitability. It is hy- and 1.6% Ar, with trace amounts of O2, CO, H2O,
pothesized that biological production of methane and CH4. The thin atmosphere and distance from
on early Earth may have been critical for main- the Sun (1.52 AU) cause the surface temperature
taining a high surface temperature and exposed to vary from the CO2 frost point of 140 K
liquid water (see Sec. 2E). Similarly, the rise of (133°C) at the poles to nearly 310 K (37°C) for
oxygen probably triggered global extinctions of brief periods in the southern hemisphere. These
anaerobic organisms; however, the presence of radical temperature swings cause the CO2 at-
oxygen also produced an ozone layer, which pro- mosphere to condense in the polar regions in win-
vides a barrier against harmful UV radiation (see ter and sublimate in summer; this seasonal
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 789

“breathing” causes a nearly 25% fluctuation in at- Baker, V. (2001) Water and the martian landscape. Nature
mospheric pressure every year. 412, 228–236.
Boynton, W.V., Feldman, W.C., Squyres, S.W., Prettyman,
Kieffer, H.H., Jakosky, B.M., and Snyder, C.W. (1992) The T.H., Bruckner, J., Evans, L.G., Reedy, R.C., Starr, R.,
planet Mars: from antiquity to the present. In Mars, Arnold, J.R., Drake, D.M., Englert, P.A.J., Metzger, A.E.,
edited by B.M. Jakosky, C.W.Snyder, M.S. Matthews, Mitrofanov, I., Trombka, J.I., d’Uston, C., Wanke, H.,
and H.H. Kieffer, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Gasnault, O., Hamara, D.K., Janes, D.M., Marcialis,
pp. 1–33. R.L., Maurice, S., Mikheeva, I., Taylor, G.J., Tokar, R.,
and Shinohara, C. (2002) Distribution of hydrogen in
the near surface of Mars: evidence for subsurface ice
Stable liquid water on the surface is unlikely deposits. Science 297, 81–85.
under current Mars conditions. Metastable liquid
water (protected against boiling but not evapo-
ration), however, may be possible under a range Climate Change and Early Mars
of present-day conditions.
Unlike Earth, Mars experiences extreme varia-
Hecht, M.H. (2002) Metastability of liquid water on Mars. tions in solar flux at the surface. Aside from
Icarus 156, 373–386. changes in the solar output, three factors influ-
Kieffer, H.H., Jakosky, B.M., Snyder, C.W., and Mathews, ence this variation: the planetary tilt (obliquity),
M.S., eds. (1992) Mars, University of Arizona Press, Tuc- the noncircularity of the orbit (eccentricity), and
son.
van Decar, J. and Ziemelis, K. (2001) Mars. Nature 412,
the timing of the planet’s closest approach to the
207. Sun (perihelion). Of these three effects, changes
in the obliquity are the main contributor to
changes in climate. Numerical calculations show
Evidence for Water Ice on Mars that the martian obliquity over the short term can
vary from 0° to 60°, and over longer time scales
Observations of the martian polar regions re- can reach values as high as 80°. Oscillations in the
veal spectroscopic evidence for water ice out- obliquity of up to 15° occur on 150,000-year time
crops in the southern polar regions within pre- scales, and the mean value of the obliquity can
dominantly carbon dioxide ice. Observations of shift by 25° or more over 10 Ma. The short-term
receding ice pits in the southern polar deposits oscillations may be responsible for recent periods
appear to require a water ice foundation; the of climate change recorded as variations in polar
steep slopes would be unstable if supported by layered deposits, and longer-term variations may
carbon dioxide ice. be responsible for more extreme climate varia-
tions, including changes in the location of ice on
Byrne, S. and Ingersoll, A.P. (2003) A sublimation model the surface and in the amount of atmospheric
for martian South Polar ice features. Science 299,
CO2.
1051–1053.
Malin, M.C., Caplinger, M.A., and Davis, S.D. (2001) Ob-
servational evidence for an active surface reservoir of Fanale, F.P. and Salvail, J.R. (1994) Quasi-periodic at-
solid carbon dioxide on Mars. Science 294, 2146–2148. mosphere-regolith-cap CO2 redistribution in the mart-
Titus, T.N., Kieffer, H.H., and Christensen, P.R. (2003) Ex- ian past. Icarus 111, 305–316.
posed water ice discovered near the South Pole of Mars. Laskar, J., Levrard, B., and Mustard, J.F. (2002) Orbital
Science 299, 1048–1050. forcing of the martian polar layered deposits. Nature
419, 375–377.
Laskar, J., Correia, A.C.M., Gastineau, M., Joutel, F., Lev-
Evidence also exists for water ice within the rard, B., and Robutel, P. (2004) Long term evolution and
martian regolith. Water ice can be detected by a chaotic diffusion of the insolation quantities of Mars.
reduction in the observed number of neutrons of Icarus 170, 343–364.
a specific energy emitted. These observations in- Mischna, M.A., Richardson, M.I., Wilson, R.J., and Mc-
dicate 10–50% water ice by weight in the regolith Cleese, D.J. (2003) On the orbital forcing of martian wa-
(loose particles over bedrock). It is unevenly dis- ter and CO2 cycles: a general circulation model study
with simplified volatile schemes. J. Geophys. Res. (Plan-
tributed—with higher concentrations near the
ets) 108, 5062.
poles and lower concentrations near the equator. Ward, W.R. (1992) Long-term orbital and spin dynamics
Surface features—such as glacial-like deposits, of Mars. In Mars, edited by B.M. Jakosky, C.W. Snyder,
debris mantles, and polygonal structures—also M.S. Matthews, and H.H. Kieffer, University of Arizona
suggest subsurface water ice. Press, Tucson, pp. 298–320.
790 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

Mars shows evidence of transient liquid water to- teorite ALH84001, there is no conclusive evidence
day on very small scales in the form of gullies. Cur- that life exists or ever existed on Mars. Low sur-
rently, the main debate in Mars science is whether face temperatures, extreme radiation, and lack of
Mars supported a warmer, wetter climate in the liquid water on the martian surface are assumed
past. Several lines of evidence indicate that Mars to be too hostile to support life as we know it. The
has experienced enough warming to produce martian subsurface, however, may provide a
episodic and prolonged periods of liquid water on number of potential habitats. A permafrost layer
the surface. Old features, such as the valley net- may be as close as a few meters below the sur-
works that cover the ancient cratered lands of the face, and a water ice/liquid water interface could
south, appear to require more extended periods of be as shallow as a few kilometers. Hydrothermal
liquid water flowing at or near the surface. Younger, systems could make communication possible be-
catastrophic outflow channels near the boundaries tween the deep and near subsurface habitats, and
of the cratered southlands and smoother lands to provide a potential environment for life.
the north probably represent episodic floods that While Mars may have supported life in the
may not have required a large change in climate. past, one of the biggest arguments against the ex-
istence of current life has been the lack of mea-
Carr, M.H. (1996) Water on Mars, Oxford University Press, surable, biologically produced gases in the at-
London, UK. mosphere. Recent observation of methane in the
Malin, M.C. and Edgett, K.S. (2000) Evidence for recent
atmosphere, however, may provide such sup-
groundwater seepage and surface runoff on Mars. Sci-
ence 288, 2330–2335. port. It should be noted that several other expla-
nations for this—such as hydrothermal out-
Three lines of evidence suggest the presence of gassing or release from clathrate deposits—are
liquid water near the surface: cross-bedded, fine- being explored.
scale layered minerals; mineral sequences that re-
Farmer, J.D. and Des Marais, D.J. (1999) Exploring for a
semble evaporation patterns; and iron-rich min-
record of ancient martian life. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 26977.
eral inclusions. This evidence has been found at McKay, D.S., Gibson, E.K., Jr., Thomas-Keprta, K.L., Vali,
the landing sites for both Spirit and Opportunity H., Romanek, C.S., Clemett, S.J., Chillier, X.D.F., Maech-
missions, which indicates a global phenomenon ling, C.R., and Zare, R.N. (1996) Search for past life on
(see Sec. 7B). Mars: possible relic biogenic activity in martian mete-
orite ALH84001. Science 273, 924–930.
Mars Rover Team (2004) Special issue: Opportunity at Varnes, E.S., Jakosky, B.M., and McCollom, T.M. (2003)
Meridiani Planum. Science 306, 1633–1844. Biological potential of martian hydrothermal systems.
Astrobiology 3, 407–414.
The difficulty arises in producing an environ-
ment warm enough to support the conditions that Exploration History, Strategies, and Plans
formed these features. Models designed to pro-
duce an early Mars warm enough to have the Viking orbiters and Landers 1 and 2 gave the
mean temperature above 273 K (the melting point first comprehensive view of the martian surface,
of water) require unrealistic assumptions or very which indicated a geologically dynamic place
large greenhouse atmospheres. However, pro- (see Sec. 7B). The landers measured surface tem-
posals for a “cool, wet” Mars allow for warm perature, pressure, and wind speeds for nearly 2
enough temperatures to get episodic formation of martian years at two distant places. They also
the observed features without requiring the mean sampled the atmosphere and measured bulk ele-
temperature to rise above 273 K. mental composition at the surface.
Each lander carried a suite of three experi-
Baker, V. (2001) Water and the martian landscape. Nature ments, which were carefully designed to detect a
412, 228–235. specific kind of biochemistry. They looked for the
Kasting, J.F. (1997) Update: the early Mars climate ques-
formation and destruction of molecules incorpo-
tion heats up. Science 278, 1245.
rating 14C, a radioactive isotope of carbon. The
results were consistent with the results expected
Potential Habitats if life were present, though abiological peroxide
Aside from the highly controversial evidence chemistry is thought to produce similar results.
for microfossils and biomarkers in the Mars me- The ambiguity of these results demonstrates the
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 791

difficulty of looking for alien life in an alien en- 5D. Exploration and Characterization of
vironment. Europa (SV)
Another experiment, using a gas chromato-
graph-mass spectrometer, failed to detect any ev- History of Europan Exploration
idence for organic compounds in the martian soil. In 1610, Galileo Galilei and Simon Marius ob-
This suggests that terrean-like life has not been served Europa and Jupiter’s three other large in-
recently present on the surface of Mars and the ner moons—the first objects known to orbit a
radioactive carbon experiments detected abiolog- body other than the Sun (or Earth). Subsequent
ical chemistry. observations have revealed a bevy of smaller
moons that also orbit the planet.
Klein, H.P., Horowitz, N.H., and Biemann, K. (1992) The Modern space exploration has afforded a closer
search for extant life on Mars. In Mars, edited by B.M. look. Voyager 1 and 2 (1979) provided detailed
Jakosky, C.W. Snyder, M.S. Matthews, and H.H. Kief-
pictures of Europa’s surface ice and clues of a pos-
fer, University of Arizona Press, Tuscon, pp. 1221–1233.
sible liquid water ocean underneath. From 1995
to 2003, Galileo orbited Jupiter, equipped with a
The next generation of Mars exploration began
1,500-mm telescopic camera, a photometric po-
in the 1990s; its focuses are the search for liquid
larimeter for looking at surface texture, near-IR
water and exploring strategies for finding life.
mapping capabilities, UV spectrometers for sur-
Current mission goals are orbital reconnaissance
face and gas composition, and a magnetometer.
(Mars Global Surveyor, Mars Odyssey, Mars Re-
Galileo made 84 orbits of Jupiter, with 19 passes
connaissance Orbiter, and Mars Express) and ex-
near Europa, coming closer than 1,500 km to the
ploring the surface using flexible, mobile instru-
surface. (See Sec. 7B for mission details.)
ment platforms (Mars Exploration Rovers).
Future plans include more targeted, on-site ex-
http://www.galileo.jpl.nasa.gov/ (NASA’s Galileo Legacy
periments and sample return. site)

http://www.marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/missions
Bulk Composition: Thickness of the
Major Mars Missions (Ongoing H2O Layer
and Planned) Europa’s radius is 1,565 km ( 8 km), and the
• Mars orbital resources: average surface temperature is 103 K. Gravity and
 Mars Global Surveyor—high-resolution im- inertial moment at Europa were inferred by track-
agery, altimetry, thermal spectroscopy ing the Doppler shift of Galileo’s radio signal (due
 Mars Odyssey—imaging IR spectroscopy, to gravitational acceleration from Europa) during
gamma-ray spectrometer each pass. Europa appears to have an inner
 Mars Express—stereoscopic imagery, radar rock/metal shell of density greater than 3,800
sounding kg/m3 covered by a layer of partially or entirely
 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter—high-resolu- frozen H2O (  1,000 kg/m3) between 80 and
tion imagery, meteorology/climate mapping, 170 km thick. Inertia measurements from four
shallow radar close passes by the Galileo satellite constrain the
 Mars Telecommunications Orbiter—planned size of Europa’s metal core, if it has one, to no
launch 2009 more than half the moon’s radius.
• Mars surface resources
 Mars Exploration Rovers—suite of surface Anderson, J.D., Schubert, G., Jacobson, R.A., Lau, E.L.,
exploration tools: stereoscopic imagery, ther- Moore, W.B., and Sjorgen, W.L. (1998) Europa’s differ-
entiated internal structure: inferences from four Galileo
mal emission spectrometer, alpha/x-ray
ecounters. Science 281, 2019–2022.
spectrometer, microimager Spencer, J.R., Tamppari, L.K., Martin, T.Z., and Travis,
 Mars Phoenix—planned launch 2007
L.D. (1999) Temperatures on Europa from Galileo pho-
 Mars Science Laboratory—planned launch topolarimeter-radiometer: nighttime thermal anom-
2009 alies. Science 284, 1514–1516.
 Beyond 2009: Mars Sample Return, Deep
Drilling, Astrobiology Science Lab, Scout Mis- Galileo’s magnetometer detected a field near
sions—novel surface exploration strategies. Europa’s surface, induced by Jupiter’s intrinsi-
792 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

cally generated magnetic field. Europa’s mag- 20% of Europa’s surface. All of the features
netic field signature has a strong component near mentioned above are believed to have hosted liq-
the surface, which suggests an ionic fluid (i.e., uid water at some time, and non-ice deposits are
salty water) as the likeliest inductive material. A concentrated at them.
europan ocean, 10 km deep with salinity equiva- Craters are few in comparison with those on
lent to Earth’s (3.75%), would have conductiv- the surface of Ganymede and Callisto, which in-
ity sufficient to support the induced field. dicates that Europa has been resurfaced within
30–70 Ma. Stratigraphic relationships (temporal
Surface Spectra: An Indicator of sequences inferred from analysis of overlying fea-
Ocean Composition? tures) indicate that cratered regions and the
broadest bands are the oldest features on Eu-
Non-ice material is visible on Europa where
ropa’s surface. Chaos regions are the youngest.
liquid water may have reached the surface, most
Apparently, melt-through features are a recent
prominently along linear cracks and chaos (or
mode of alteration, whereas cracking features
melt-through) regions. Thus, the non-ice compo-
have formed continuously.
nent most likely comes from within the moon; its
composition may be representative of the com- Figueredo, P.H. and Greeley, R. (2004) Resurfacing his-
position of an underlying europan ocean. Near- tory of Europa from pole-to-pole geological mapping.
IR spectra of the non-ice component on Europa’s Icarus 167, 287–312.
surface appear to match spectra of hydrated Zahnle, K., Schenk, P., Levison, H., and Dones, L. (2003)
sulfate and carbonate salts (MgSO4 H2O, Crating rates in the outer Solar System. Icarus 163,
Na2SO4 H2O, CaCO3). The match is not unique 263–189.
(other materials fit reasonably well), but sulfate
salts are the prime candidates because they are The dominance of extensional (as opposed to
predicted to be the dominant component of an compressional) features on Europa’s surface is
ocean on a moon formed from C1 chondrites, the consistent with a cooling and, thereby, expand-
oldest known meteorites thought to represent the ing and thickening shell that overlies a liquid wa-
non-hydrogen bulk composition of the Solar Sys- ter ocean. The discovery of compressional fea-
tem (see meteorites in Sec. 2B). tures in future geologic surveys, however, would
call into question the inference of a cooling and
Dalton, J.B., Prieto-Ballesteros, O., Kargel, J.S., Jamieson, thickening shell. Changes in the thickness of Eu-
C.S., Jolivet, J., and Quinn R. (2005) Spectral compari- ropa’s ice shell may be expected due to orbital
son of heavily hydrated salts with disrupted terrains evolution of the moon.
on Europa. Icarus 177, 472–490.
Kargel, J.S. (1991) Brine volcanism and the interior struc- Hussman, H. and Spohn, T. (2005) Thermal-orbital evo-
tures of asteroids and icy satellites. Icarus 94, 368–390. lution of Io and Europa. Icarus 171, 391–410.
McCord, T.B., Hansen, G.B., Fanale, F.P., Carlson, R.W., Nimmo, F. (2004) Stresses generated in cooling viscoelas-
Matson, D.L., Johnson, T.V., Smythe, W.D., Crowley, tic ice shells: applications to Europa. J. Geophys. Res. 109,
J.K., Martin, P.D., Ocampo, A., Hibbitts, C.A., Grana- E12001, doi:10.1029/2004JE002347.
han, J.C., and the NIMS Team (1998) Salts on Europa’s
surface detected by Galileo’s near infrared mapping
spectrometer. Science 280, 1242–1245. Can Seafloor Heat Cause Surface
Melt-Through Features?
Age and History of Europa’s Surface
Is the ocean fully convecting? Does material
Though Europa has not been mapped at high from the seafloor reach the ice ceiling? Can a
resolution, Galileo achieved pole-to-pole swaths heated hydrothermal plume—a parcel of water
of imaging for most of the moon’s surface. Analy- that is less dense than the surrounding ocean—
sis of composite images reveals many features at transport enough energy to the ice ceiling to cause
the 20 km and greater scale. Among these are the melt-through? If so, there should be regular ex-
previously mentioned cracking features, the change of materials between the surface of Eu-
wider (d  100 km) described as bands, and nar- ropa and the underlying ocean.
rower (d  20 km) as ridges. Domes and pits are If the ocean is sufficiently dilute and the ice
regions that appear to have been lifted or shell thinner than 20 km, the peculiar thermal
dropped, respectively. Chaos regions appear on expansion properties of water would prevent
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 793

convection; near the ice surface ceiling, the water Marion, G.M., Fritsen, C.H., Eiken, H., and Payne, M.C.
would be warmer than the water below. The pres- (2003) The search for life on Europa: limiting environ-
ence of a stagnant layer would limit physical in- mental factors, potential habitats, and Earth analogues.
Astrobiology 3, 785–811.
teraction between ocean and ice lid. It is also pos-
sible that a fully convecting ocean would have
little variation in temperature and the whole Abbreviations
ocean would be close to freezing. AU, astronomical unit; CHZ, continuously
habitable zone; IR, infrared; RV, radial velocity;
Goodman, J.C., Collins, G.C., Marshall, J., and Pierre- SIM, Space Interferometry Mission; TPF, Terres-
humbert, R.T. (2004) Hydrothermal plume dynamics on trial Planet Finder; UV, ultraviolet.
Europa: implications for chaos formation. J. Geophys.
Res. 109, E03008, doi:10.1029/2003JE002073.
Melosh, H.J., Ekholm, A.G., Showman, A.P., and Lorenz,
R.D. (2004) The temperature of Europa’s subsurface wa- Chapter 6. Diversity of Life (AnM)
ter ocean. Icarus 168, 498–502.
This chapter summarizes the current under-
Ocean Composition standing of life on Earth and highlights research
that is challenging the assumptions of life’s limi-
A model of Europa’s formation by the accre-
tations; namely, the search for life in the harshest
tion of primordial meteors predicts that the re-
environments on earth where extreme physical
sulting ocean would be initially warm and draw
and chemical conditions suggest the existence of
salt from Europa’s rocky component. Subsequent
life is unlikely. The chapter begins with a pre-
cooling would drive the ocean to a saturated
sentation of biodiversity (Sec. 6A), and then
state, with perhaps kilometers of salt precipitate
moves from biological to metabolic diversity and
settling to the seafloor.
the variety of mechanisms used to harness energy
Because of escape of light molecules (H2, CH4,
(Sec. 6B). Finally, Sec. 6C forms an overview of
and CO) on formation, the mantle is expected to
the limits of life on Earth with a brief introduc-
be oxidized at the present (see redox in Sec. 2C).
tion to the organisms that live at or near the the-
Sulfate (SO42) and perhaps sulfite (SO32), but
oretical boundaries of life.
not sulfide (S2), are believed to be the dominant
salts in the ocean.
6A. Biodiversity (OJ)
Zolotov, M.Y. and Shock, E.L. (2001) Composition and Recent advances in molecular biology have
stability of salts on the surface of Europa and their
unveiled a remarkably diverse biological com-
oceanic origin. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 32815–32827.
munity, which nonetheless shares common an-
cestry. Modern molecular methods that com-
Life in Europa’s Ocean? pare conserved deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)
Hydrothermal systems may persist in Europa’s sequences common to all life indicate that
ocean and represent a potential source of energy Earth’s entire biota can be represented by a sin-
for life, but compositional or redox (chemical en- gle family tree (see Sec. 4C and Figs. 6.1–3).
ergy) conditions may limit the extent. Acidity or Current approximations place the number of
low temperature may create an insurmountable species inhabiting the Earth at 3–30 million,
barrier to chemical reactions necessary for me- though only 2 million have been identified. As
tabolism. On the other hand, bombardment of each new species is identified and its charac-
Europa’s surface by solar wind particles may in- teristics are defined, astrobiologists gain an-
still Europa’s ice surface with chemical energy, other data point to use in the search for life be-
which, filtered to the ocean, could power life. yond Earth.
Everything we know about life in the universe
Chyba, C.F. and Hand, K.P. (2001) Life without photo- comes from our understanding of Earth. It is fair
synthesis. Science 292, 2026–2027.
to say that each species lost to extinction limits
Kargel, J.S., Kaye, J.Z., Head, J.W., III, Marion, G.M.,
Sassen, R., Crowley, J.K., Ballesteros, O.P., Grant, S.A.,
our ability to understand the universe and the po-
and Hogenboom, D.L. (2000) Europa’s crust and ocean: tential for extraterrean life. Earth conservation is
origin, composition, and the prospects for life. Icarus truly conservation of our knowledge of life in the
148, 226–265. universe.
794 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

EURYARCHAEOTA
CRENARCHAEOTA contains three primary lines of descent referred
to as “domains” by Carl Woese: Bacteria, Ar-
chaea, and Eukarya. Four of the five previously

eus
op m
rot
Thermococcus
Methanococcus
Halophiles
recognized kingdoms belong in the domain Eu-

erm ilu
Methano- m
ulu

Th rmof
spirillum b ac karya. Organisms with nuclei (an internal, mem-
ro

e
Py Pyrodyctium

Th
Methano- Desulfurococcus brane-bound organelle containing the cell’s ge-
sarcina Sulfolobus
netic material), which include all multicellular
Thermoplasma organisms, fall within the Eukarya (literally
Archaeoglobus meaning “possessing a good or true nucleus”).
iu
m us s The genetic material of the two other domains,
t er erm yru
ac b oth no
p called prokaryotes (literally meaning “prior to
no an tha
h a h e
et M e t M KORARCHAEOTA nuclei”), is centrally located within the cell but
M
not bound by an internal membrane.
By far the most significant result of the new
TO EUKARYA
tree of life is recognition of the great diversity of
AND BACTERIA microbial life. Single-celled organisms have oc-
FIG. 6.1. Tree of Life: Archaea. cupied Earth for far longer (3.4–3.9 Ga) than their
macroscopic cousins, the complex multicellular
eukaryotes (0.6 Ga, see Fig. 2.2), and are far more
Wilson, E.O. and Peter, F.M. (1988) BioDiversity, National
abundant and varied. Within prokaryotes,
Academy Press, Washington, DC.
Wilson, E.O. (2003) The encyclopedia of life. Trends Ecol.
smaller categories (called kingdoms, phyla, or di-
Evol. 18, 77–80. visions depending on the school of thought) of-
ten represent greater molecular and metabolic di-
Diversity Studies—History and Techniques versity than that found in plants or animals.
Archaea and Bacteria are now known to contain
Current classification schemes and models of the overwhelming majority of metabolic diversity
diversity differ radically from early approaches, on Earth. Members of the two groups are capa-
which were based on physical traits (pheno-
types). Carolus Linnaeus (1707–1778) developed
the first systematic approach to identifying or-
ganisms using “binomial nomenclature.” In this
system, every organism is given a two-part name
based on categories of similarity, placing organ-
isms into a genus and species. Debate ensued
over the best system of naming, however, and
with Charles Darwin’s discovery of evolution by
natural selection, taxonomists came to believe
that classification should reflect the history of life.
The classification system was adapted into fam-
ily trees or phylogenies (see Sec. 4C).
In 1959, Robert Whittaker advanced a classifi-
cation system that arranges organisms into a hi-
erarchical taxonomic scheme, where the largest
categories are called kingdoms. The five king-
doms were called Plantae (plants), Animalia (an-
imals), Fungi, Protoctista (one celled eukaryotes
and their immediate multicellular descendants),
and Monera (all modern prokaryotes). Beneath
each kingdom, life was further subdivided into
Phyla, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and Species.
More recent advances in molecular phyloge-
netics (see Sec. 4C) have again reshaped taxa-
nomic classification. The result is a tree of life that FIG. 6.2. Tree of Life: Bacteria.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 795

domains Archaea, Bacteria, and Eucarya. Proc. Natl.


Acad. Sci. USA 87, 4576–4579.

Diversity of Extant Life


Sequence-based diversity studies indicate that
the bulk of Earth’s biodiversity belongs to Bacte-
ria and Archaea. Microbial life encompasses over
90% of genetic diversity, which accounts for es-
sentially all metabolic diversity and an over-
whelming majority of the total biomass on Earth.
There are currently over 40 phylum level divi-
sions within Bacteria, over 20 within Archaea,
and more than a dozen that describe single-celled
eukaryotes. Within the new framework, Ani-
malia, Plantae, and Fungi now appear as a rela-
tively young, yet highly branched twig on an an-
cient tree. It remains true, however, that
eukaryotes are much more diverse than prokary-
otes at the morphological and behavioral scale.

Curtis, T.P., Sloan, W.T., and Scannell, J.W. (2002) Esti-


mating prokaryotic diversity and its limits. Proc. Natl.
Acad. Sci. USA 99, 10494–10499.
Pace, N.R. (1997) A molecular view of microbial diversity
and the biosphere. Science 276, 734–740.
Wilson, E.O. (2003) On global biodiversity estimates. Pa-
FIG. 6.3. Tree of Life: Eukarya. leobiology 29, 14–14.

Modern Techniques and Perspectives


ble of utilizing virtually every available source of
chemical energy to fuel their biological needs The field of genomics aims to understand the
(Sec. 6B). evolutionary history and the metabolic and phys-
The microscopic size and limited morphology iological potential of organisms from their DNA.
of prokaryotes and many eukaryotes requires the Modern advances in DNA sequencing technol-
use of molecular and chemical data to define ogy have made it possible to sequence genomes
groups at all levels. The domains are officially de- (an organism’s entire set of genetic information)
fined using ribosomal RNA sequences. A num- in one day (for some prokaryotes) or one week
ber of additional properties are characteristic, if (for some eukaryotes). The resulting sequence
not always definitive, of each group (Fig. 6.4). In data can then be sorted into a map of the organ-
addition, a large majority of prokaryotes are not ism’s genome that indicates the location of genes,
yet cultivated, which makes the recognition of marker sequences, viral DNA, transposons, and
their diversity totally dependent on molecular other features. An enormous amount of “puta-
methods. tive” information about the function of genes can
be inferred from their similarity to known se-
Gupta, R.S. and Griffiths, E. (2002) Critical issues in bac- quences in well-studied organisms.
terial phylogeny. Theor. Population Biol. 61, 423–434. In spite of all of the advances made possible by
Madigan, M. and Martinko, J. (2005) Brock Biology of Mi- modern computing power, much remains to be
croorganisms, 11th ed., Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, discovered. Even in the simplest self-replicating
NY.
organism known, Mycoplasma genitalium, at least
Margulis, L. and Schwartz, K.V. (1998) Five Kingdoms: An
Illustrated Guide to the Phyla of Life on Earth, 3rd ed., W.H. 100 of 512 genes still have unknown function, and
Freeman, Sunderland, MA. in many relatively well-studied prokaryotes, 50%
Woese, C.R., Kandler, O., and Wheelis, M.L. (1990) To- or more of the genome remains labeled as “hy-
wards a natural system of organisms: proposal for the pothetical” or unknown.
796 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

FIG. 6.4. Characteristics of the three domains. DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid; RNA, ribonucleic acid.

Whole community sequencing efforts, known as Olsen, G.J., Larsen, N., and Woese, C.R. (1991) The Ribo-
“metagenomics,” represent powerful attempts to somal-RNA Database Project. Nucleic Acids Res. 19,
understand the community structure and meta- 2017–2021.
Tyson, G.W., Chapman, J., Hugenholtz, P., Allen, E.E.,
bolic potential of ecosystems. Investigators treat the
Ram, R.J., Richardson, P.M., Solovyev, V.V., Rubin,
genetic component of all organisms in the com- E.M., Rokhsar, D.S., and Banfield, J.F. (2004) Commu-
munity as a whole. Rather than sequencing the nity structure and metabolism through reconstruction
genomes of particular individuals, they take ran- of microbial genomes from the environment. Nature
dom samples from the environment and infer 428, 37–43.
properties of the whole community. As yet, these Venter, J.C., Remington, K., Heidelberg, J.F., Halpern,
methods provide only a survey of ecosystem di- A.L., Rusch, D., Eisen, J.A., Wu, D.Y., Paulsen, I., Nel-
son, K.E., Nelson, W., Fouts, D.E., Levy, S., Knap, A.H.,
versity in all but the most species-limited environ-
Lomas, M.W., Nealson, K., White, O., Peterson, J., Hoff-
ments. Even there, the high number of putative man, J., Parsons, R., Baden-Tillson, H., Pfannkoch, C.,
gene functions remains a formidable obstacle. Rogers, Y.H., and Smith, H.O. (2004) Environmental
genome shotgun sequencing of the Sargasso Sea. Sci-
Bull, A.T. (2004) Microbial Diversity and Bioprospecting, ence 304, 66–74.
American Society for Microbiology Press, Washington,
DC. Current Debates
DeLong, E.F. and Pace, N.R. (2001) Environmental diver-
sity of Bacteria and Archaea. Syst. Biol. 50, 470–478. On what basis do we define “species”?
Fuhrman, J.A. (1999) Marine viruses and their biogeo-
chemical and ecological effects. Nature 399, 541–548. Differences between binomial taxonomy and
Hugenholtz, P. (2002) Exploring prokaryotic diversity in new molecular phylogenetics have generated in-
the genomic era. Genome Biol. 3, reviews0003.1-0003.8. tense debate over the classification of organisms.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 797

Some authors have suggested grouping se- refers to the loss of electrons (a molecule that has
quences into “species” by 97% similarity of 16S lost electrons is oxidized), and reduction refers to
(or 18S) ribosomal RNA genes. While this gener- the gain of electrons (a molecule that has gained
ates a useful organizing principle, there are many electrons is reduced). Oxidation must be coupled
examples in which such “species” show little con- to reduction—such reactions are also known as
gruity with biologically interesting phenotypic redox reactions. (See Sec. 2C for an introduction
and metabolic traits, and others in which pheno- to inorganic redox chemistry.)
typically similar organisms are quite different as By coupling the oxidation of a fuel (a reduced
judged by molecular methods. The definition also electron donor) to the reduction of an oxidant (an
excludes organisms for which there are no mole- electron acceptor), energy can be generated for
cular data. Lastly, the extent and significance of life. The tendency of a chemical species to gain or
horizontal gene transfer (see Sec. 4B)—the trans- lose electrons is referred to as the redox poten-
fer of genetic material between otherwise unre- tial. Some chemical species have a great tendency
lated groups—is highly significant in biodiversity to donate electrons and are, therefore, great fuels
studies and contributes as much as 44% of an in- (e.g., H2). Others tend to gain electrons and so are
dividual’s protein coding genes. Such data make great oxidants (e.g., O2). Most eukaryotes can only
molecular phylogenetics and, in particular, use organic compounds as fuel and O2 as an ox-
species concepts wide open for discussion. idant, whereas bacteria and archaea are able to
utilize a number of alternative fuels and oxidants.
Jaspers, E. and Overmann, J. (2004) Ecological significance [Photosynthetic eukaryotes rely on internal plas-
of microdiversity: identical 16S rRNA gene sequences tids for photosynthesis. Plastids, including
can be found in bacteria with highly divergent genomes
chloroplasts, appear to be descended from
and ecophysiologies. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 70,
4831–4839.
cyanobacteria engulfed by a eukaryote billions of
Nesbø, C.L., Boucher, Y., Dlutek, M., and Doolittle, W.F. years ago (see Sec. 4D).] These pseudo-bacteria
(2005) Lateral gene transfer and phylogenetic assign- provide nutrients for the host cell. Theoretically,
ment of environmental fosmid clones. Environ. Micro- any fuel can be coupled to any oxidant so long as
biol. 7, 2011–2026. the redox potential of the fuel is more negative
Stackebrandt, E. and Goebel, B.M. (1994) A place for than that of the oxidant (Fig. 6.5).
DNA-DNA reassociation and 16S ribosomal-RNA se-
quence-analysis in the present species definition in bac-
teriology. Int. J. Syst. Bacteriol. 44, 846–849. Metabolic Nomenclature
Wilson, E.O. (2003) Biodiversity in the information age. Every organism can be described on the basis
Issues Sci. Technol. 19, 45–46.
of its metabolism, how it processes energy, and
how it makes basic biomolecules (see Sec. 3A).
6B. Redox Chemistry and Metabolic Terrean organisms get the energy necessary to
Diversity (LM, GD, FS) live and reproduce either by using solar radiation
Organisms on Earth have evolved to harness en- (sunlight) or reduced chemical compounds (e.g.,
ergy from a wide range of thermodynamically fa- reduced sulfur species such as sulfide) available
vorable (energy-yielding) chemical reactions, and in their environments. While it remains theoreti-
the vast majority of this metabolic diversity lies cally possible that other forms of energy—such
within microorganisms. Despite a variety of meta- as heat or kinetic energy—could be used, exam-
bolic strategies, all terrean life shares common bio- ples of such organisms have not been observed.
chemical mechanisms for translating chemical re- An organism is often described by its overall
actions into usable energy. Specifically, all known energy metabolism, including energy source,
organisms generate an electrochemical gradient electron source, and carbon source (Table 6.1).
across a cellular membrane (see Sec. 3B). The gra- Energy can be derived from light or from reduced
dient is used to drive the formation of adenosine chemical compounds. Electrons can be taken
triphosphate (ATP), the principal currency for en- from organic compounds (containing at least one
ergy storage in all cells (see nucleotides in Sec. 3A). C¶C bond) or from inorganic compounds. Or-
ganisms obtain carbon via two major processes:
conversion of CO2 (or other single carbon mole-
Redox (Oxidation-Reduction) Chemistry
cules) into organic carbon (autotrophy) or direct
Chemical reactions that involve electron trans- uptake of organic carbon (heterotrophy). When
fer are central to metabolic processes. Oxidation an atom such as C or N is incorporated into an
798 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

that synthesize organic molecules using light en-


ergy). More than 99% of the energy budget for ter-
rean life comes from the Sun through phototrophs.
Phototrophy involves a complex protein appara-
tus, which uses light to run a proton pump as well
as to store energy in charged molecules (NADH
and NADPH). The proton pump creates a reser-
voir of protons on one side of a membrane. Pro-
tein gates allow protons back through the mem-
brane (driven by osmotic pressure), which creates
ATP in the process. The charged molecules, in-
cluding ATP, can later be used to reduce other
molecules and power reactions.
Phototrophy has been observed in five groups
of bacteria (Fig. 6.2). Oxygenic phototrophs (e.g.,
cyanobacteria) absorb light at high enough ener-
gies to split water, which produces oxygen as a
by-product. The remaining phototrophs are
anoxygenic. The “endosymbiont hypothesis” ex-
plains how phototrophic eukaryotes acquired the
FIG. 6.5. Redox potentials and life.
ability to photosynthesize by incorporating
cyanobacteria (or a close relative) into their cells
at some point early in evolution. Over time, these
organic compound, it is said to be “fixed.” “Pri-
cyanobacteria evolved into modern chloroplasts,
mary producer” is another word for autotroph
eukaryotic organelles in which photosynthesis
and describes any organism that fixes carbon. All
occurs. Eukaryotic phototrophy, consequently, is
other organisms (heterotrophs) build structures
oxygenic photosynthesis (see Sec. 4D). No pho-
using organic molecules synthesized by the pri-
tosynthetic archaeans have been observed.
mary producers.
Overall, the diversity of metabolic pathways
The names can be combined, and the best de-
for harvesting light energy has only recently been
scriptions involve all three categories. For example,
fully appreciated. Some organisms in all three do-
plants and cyanobacteria are photolithoautotrophs,
mains of life possess light-mediated proton
animals are chemoorganoheterotrophs, and iron-
pumps, which do not directly store energy in
oxidizing bacteria are chemolithoautotrophs.
charged molecules (bacteriorhodopsin and pro-
Canfield, D.E., Thamdrup, B., and Kristensen, E. (2005) teorhodopsin). It remains unclear whether, and
Advances in Marine Biology, Vol. 48: Aquatic Geomicrobi- to what extent, organisms can function using this
ology, Elsevier, Oxford, UK. as their sole source of energy.
Madigan, M. and Martinko, J. (2005) Brock Biology of Mi-
croorganisms, 11th ed., Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, Karl, D.M. (2002) Hidden in a sea of microbes. Nature 415,
NY. 590–591.
Blankenship, R. (2002) Molecular Mechanisms in Photosyn-
Energy from Light thesis, Blackwell Science, Oxford, UK.
Dassarma, S., Kennedy, S.P., Berquist, B., Victor Ng W.,
The ability of organisms to derive energy from Baliga, N.S., Spudich, J.L., Krebs, M.P., Eisen, J.A., John-
light is called phototrophy. (The term “photosyn- son, C.H., and Hood, L. (2001) Genomic perspective on
thesis” properly refers only to photoautotrophs the photobiology of Halobacterium species NRC-1, a

TABLE 6.1. ORGANISM DESCRIPTION BY OVERALL ENERGY METABOLISM

Energy source Electron source Carbon source

Light: phototroph Inorganic: lithotroph Inorganic: autotroph


Chemical: chemotroph Organic: organotroph Organic: heterotroph
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 799

phototrophic, phototactic, and UV-tolerant haloar- ferric iron (Fe3). Most chemolithotrophs use
chaeon. Photosynthesis Res. 70, 3–17. captured energy to fix CO2 into biomass. These
organisms are called chemolithoautotrophic or
Energy from Chemicals “chemosynthetic.”
Chemosynthetic bacteria and archaea inhabit
Those organisms that do not derive energy some of the most inhospitable environments on
from sunlight use the energy locked in chemical Earth, including the acidic waters leaching from
bonds (or available electrons) to fuel metabolism mines, the deep (1,000 m) subsurface, and the
and biosynthesis. Such “chemotrophs” obtain en- hot, metal-rich fluids emanating from deep-sea
ergy from the oxidation of organic compounds hydrothermal environments. In most instances,
(chemoorganotrophy) or inorganic compounds chemosynthetic microorganisms are free-living
(chemolithotrophy). in the water column or attached to surfaces. But
Chemoorganoheterotrophic metabolism oc- in some habitats, such as hydrocarbon seeps
curs in each of the three domains of life and is and hydrothermal vents, chemosynthetic bacte-
employed by all animals, including humans. Het- ria also live directly within the cells of marine
erotrophs acquire the organic molecules (e.g., glu- invertebrates; one example is the giant tube-
cose) necessary for fuel by predation (killing worm Riftia pachyptila that colonizes vents along
other organisms), scavenging (eating decaying mid-ocean ridges in the Pacific. In these symbi-
organisms), or by using the metabolic byproducts otic associations, the host invertebrate facilitates
released by living organisms (e.g., photosynthate access to the substrates (sulfide, oxygen, and
from algae). In aerobic heterotrophs, organic CO2) that fuel chemosynthesis by the bacteria.
compounds (“food”) provide a rich source of re- In return, the bacteria fix carbon used by both
ducing power used to pump protons and create bacteria and host. The occurrence of chemosyn-
energy storage molecules such as NADH. As in thetic microbes (in both symbiotic and free-liv-
photosynthesis, ATP formation occurs by the ing forms) in extreme environments has recently
movement of protons (H) through a membrane. attracted much interest from astrobiologists
In respiration, electrons pass from the food, owing to the potential for chemically analogous
through a series of intermediate molecules, to the habitats to occur and support life on other
terminal acceptor, oxygen (O2). Alternatively, planets.
some organisms use nitrate (NO32), sulfate
(SO42), or reduced metal species (e.g., iron and Cavanaugh, C.M., McKiness, Z.P., Newton, I.L.G., and
manganese oxides) as an electron sink in anaero- Stewart, F.J. (2005) Marine chemosynthetic symbioses.
bic conditions. In The Prokaryotes: A Handbook on the Biology of Bacteria,
Many single-celled, anaerobic heterotrophs, 3rd Ed., edited by M.M. Dworkin, S. Falkow, E. Rosen-
berg, K.-H. Schleifer, and E. Stackebrandt, Springer,
including yeasts and many species of bacteria,
New York. (See The Prokaryotes Online: http://141.
use fermentation with organic molecules acting 150.157.117:8080/prokPUB/index. htm.)
as both electron donor and electron acceptor. In White, D. (1999) The Physiology and Biochemistry of Prokary-
every major ecosystem on the planet, metabo- otes, 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, London.
lism by both aerobic and anaerobic heterotrophs
plays a substantial role in the cycling of organic 6C. Life in Extreme Environments (AnM)
matter. Even synthetic molecules only produced
Life on Earth
by humans in the last century represent a source
of food for some species (e.g., Dehalococcoides Scientists are reassessing long-held assump-
ethenogenes, which removes halides from ethene). tions that life cannot exist in certain harsh envi-
In contrast to chemoheterotrophs, chemo- ronments. The boiling waters of Yellowstone hot
lithotrophs, which are restricted to the domains springs, ice systems in Antarctica, and the highly
Bacteria and Archaea, obtain energy by oxidizing alkaline waters of Mono Lake are examples of en-
inorganic compounds such as hydrogen (H2), sul- vironments previously considered uninhabitable
fide (HS), or ferrous iron (Fe2). As in chemo- but are now known to yield life. The study of mi-
organoheterotrophy, ATP formation is coupled to crobes found in these and other severe environ-
the transfer of electrons from donor compounds ments has deepened the understanding of mi-
to a terminal oxidant. Typically, this is oxygen, crobial tolerance for extreme conditions and
though some bacteria can use nitrate, sulfate, and broadened our understanding of life’s origin. It
800 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

is hypothesized that microbes found in high-tem- The latest definition of limits for biological ac-
perature environments such as hydrothermal tivity is outlined in Fig. 6.6. This definition ac-
vents were the springboard from which all life counts for discoveries of microbes in harsh envi-
has evolved. It is these microbes that form the ronments—those of high and low pH, extreme
root of the family tree discussed earlier in this temperature, or low oxygen for example—where
chapter. previous understandings of the limits of biologi-
Speculation of extraterrean life is driven by the cal activity suggested subsistence was not possi-
knowledge of life on Earth. That is, life in extreme ble. Scientists have learned that life exists at an
environments analogous to those on other plan- incredible range of physical-chemical extremes,
ets informs all hypotheses for extraterrean life. As including pH values ranging from near 0 to
scientists explore the limits of life on Earth, the greater than 11 and pressures more than 1,000
possibilities for life on other planets is redefined. times greater than the average atmospheric pres-
sure at sea level. (It is important to note that the
Cavicchioli, R. (2002) Extremophiles and the search for
extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology 2, 281–292.
limits defined in the table are based on activity
and not mere survival. For instance, prokaryotes
can survive in temperatures much colder than
Defining the Environmental Limits of Life
20°C but they are not necessarily metabolically
on Earth
active at those temperatures.)
Terrean life, as we currently understand it, re- Defining just how extreme an environment can
quires at least three fundamentals to survive: a be and still sustain life is critical to astrobiology.
liquid medium (e.g., water or brine), an energy Identifying limits for growth and organism sur-
source for metabolism, and a source of nutrients vival helps guide the search for life, both on Earth
to build and maintain cellular structures (see also and elsewhere in the universe. For instance, the
Sec. 3C). Of course, where these fundamentals are survival of biota in the Earth’s atmosphere and
found one doesn’t always find life. Other critical their tolerance for desiccation and UV radiation
physical and chemical forces impact the ability of is an example of extremophiles informing the
life to survive. search for life on other planets. Some scientists
Scientists are increasingly seeking life in now believe that life could have arisen in aerosols
harsh environments where the subsistence of and past or present life may be found in the at-
life is thought questionable or even impossible. mosphere of Venus.
Exploration in these extreme environments is Microbial diversity defines the ultimate habit-
pushing the preconceived boundaries of life. ability of an environment. In simple terms, the
And wherever the definition of life’s limits is more microbial diversity, the more habitable the
being redefined, astrobiologists are keenly look- environment. Molecular, phylogenetic, and cul-
ing on. turing surveys in extreme environments depict

FIG. 6.6. The limits of known life on Earth. UV, ultraviolet. Table adapted from Marion et al. (2003)
and references therein.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 801

the diversity—or lack thereof—of biota that the analyses are useless on fossilized molecules like
environment supports. Examples of organisms those found in ALH84001. Without the ability to
found in a broad spectrum of physical and chem- examine the viability or biological framework of
ical conditions are summarized in Fig. 6.7. Also these “cells,” the physical construct has to be as-
described in the table are specific terms used to sessed. The size of the fossil, therefore, becomes
classify extremophiles according to their toler- a critical tool in defining the character of life.
ance for conditions such as high salinity Ranging in length from 10 to 200 nm, the di-
(halophile) and high pressure (piezophile). ameter of the microfossils is smaller than most,
or perhaps all, modern prokaryotes and may be
Cavicchioli, R. (2002) Extremophiles and the search for too small to support a viable cell. Current theo-
extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology 2, 281–292.
retical estimates of the minimal diameter of a vi-
Junge, K., Eicken, H., and Deming, J.W. (2004) Bacterial
activity at 2 to 20°C in Arctic wintertime sea ice. able cell (bacterial or archaeal) range from 250 to
Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 70, 550–557. 300 nm, with a minimum of approximately
Marion, G.M., Fritsen, C.H., Eiken, H., and Payne, M.C. 250–450 essential genes. A number of factors im-
(2003) The search for life on Europa: limiting environ- pose significant constraints on minimal cell size,
mental factors, potential habitats, and Earth analogues. including the size of the genome required to en-
Astrobiology 3, 785–811. code essential macromolecules, the number of ri-
Rothschild, L.J. and Mancinelli, R.L. (2001) Life in extreme
bosomes necessary for expression of the genome,
environments. Nature 409, 1092–1101.
the number of proteins needed for essential func-
tions, and physical constraints (such as mem-
Size Limits and Life
brane width).
The controversial report of possible microfos- An increasing number of studies report evi-
sils in the Martian meteorite ALH84001 high- dence for nanobacteria and nanoarchaea—organ-
lights the importance of understanding cellular isms falling at or below the theoretical lower size
size limits. Typical molecular and biochemical limits. Nanobacteria have been linked to serious

FIG. 6.7. Extremophiles. UV, ultraviolet. Table adapted from Cavicchioli (2002), Rothschild and Mancielli
(2001), and references therein.
802 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

health problems, including kidney stones, Beardall, J. and Entwisle, L. (1984) Internal pH of
aneurysms, and ovarian cancer. A thermophilic the obligate acidophile Cyanidium-Caldarium Geitler
nanoarchaea, Nanoarchaeum equitans, was isolated (Rhodophyta?). Phycologia 23, 397–399.
Cox, M.M. and Battista, J.R. (2005) Deinococcus radiodu-
from hydrothermal vents in 2002. This symbiont
rans—the consummate survivor. Nat. Rev. Microbiol. 3,
has a diameter of 400 nm, and its genome is only 882–892.
490,885 nucleotides long. Fields, P.A. (2001) Review: Protein function at thermal
Studies of nanobacteria and nanoarchaea have extremes: balancing stability and flexibility. Comp.
proven contentious, and many argue that nano- Biochem. Physiol. A 129, 417–431.
sized particles cannot harbor the components Knoll, A.H. and Bauld, J. (1989) The evolution of ecolog-
necessary to sustain life. However, it is well ac- ical tolerance in prokaryotes. Trans. R. Soc. Edinburgh
Earth Sci. 80, 209–223.
cepted that the early forms of life were far sim-
Nies, D.H. (2000) Heavy metal-resistant bacteria as ex-
pler than the simplest free-living organisms tremophiles: molecular physiology and biotechnologi-
presently known. It is hypothesized that Earth’s cal use of Ralstonia sp. CH34. Extremophiles 4, 77–82.
primitive life forms used RNA as their sole hered-
itary and catalytic material (see Sec. 3B) and could
Extreme Environments on Earth as
have been as small as 50 nm in diameter. Thus,
the minimum size of cells on present-day Earth Analogues to Possible Extraterrean Habitats
may not be applicable in setting limits for bio- Astrobiologists study harsh earthly environ-
logical detection in extraterrean environments ments that possess features similar to those
such as Mars and Europa. thought to exist on other planets and moons.
Study of these environments informs their hy-
Huber, H., Hohn, M., Rachel, R., Fuchs, T., Wimmer, V.,
and Stetter, K. (2002) A new phylum of Archaea rep-
potheses of extraterrean habitats and refines the
resented by a nanosized hyperthermophilic symbiont. strategies applied in exploration of the Solar Sys-
Nature 417, 63–67. tem. For instance, surface temperatures on nearby
Knoll, A.H., Osborn, M.J., Baross, J.A., Berg, H.C., Pace, planets vary from more than 400°C on Mercury
N.R., and Sogin, M.L. (1999) Size Limits of Very Small and Venus to below 200°C in the Kuiper Belt
Microorganisms: Proceedings of a Workshop, National Re- (see Fig. 2.1B and Secs. 2A and B). Only the harsh-
search Council, National Academy Press, Washington, est environments on Earth compare to these ex-
DC, p. 164.
treme temperatures.
Adaptations to Extreme Conditions
Europa
Microorganisms inhabit some of the most severe
environments on Earth. These organisms have Characteristics of ice-covered Lake Vida and
evolved mechanisms that enable survival within Lake Vostok in Antarctica are thought to be similar
their respective environments—mechanisms that to the thick (1–200 km) ice layer of Europa’s saline
resist freezing, desiccation, starvation, high-levels ocean (see Sec. 5D). A 4-km-thick ice sheet covers
of radiation, and many other environmental chal- Lake Vostok while a thinner, less than 19-m sheet,
lenges. These mechanisms include: covers Lake Vida. Microorganisms have been found
in the deep ice of both lakes, which illuminates the
• Keeping extreme conditions out of the cell (e.g., potential for life in Europa’s ice cover.
spore formation) Additionally, vents similar to hydrothermal
• Quickly addressing threats to the cell (e.g., vent systems on Earth may occur on the ocean
pumps to reduce intracellular metal concen- floor of Europa (see Sec. 5D). On Earth, dynamic
trations) temperature and chemical gradients form as sub-
• Altering internal chemistry (e.g., adjusting cel- surface water mixes with seawater in the vent
lular concentrations of solutes to minimize des- chimneys. These vents support an ecosystem in
iccation at high salinities) which chemolithoautotrophs (see Sec. 6B) convert
• Protein or membrane alterations (e.g., high pro- reduced chemicals and inorganic carbon into en-
portions of fatty acids in thermophiles making ergy and biomass. The vents sustain dense com-
them more stable in hot conditions), and munities of clams, worms, shrimp, crabs, lobsters,
• Enhancing repair capabilities (e.g., accelerated fish, and other animals.
DNA damage repair under high levels of ra- The probability of photosynthetic life on the
diation). surface of Europa is particularly low, given the
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 803

extreme levels of radiation. The discovery of life Bakermans, C., Tsapin, A.I., Souza-Egipsy, V., Gilichin-
capable of processing energy chemosynthetically, sky, D.A., and Nealson, K.H. (2003) Reproduction and
however, opens the possibility that life could be metabolism at 10°C of bacteria isolated from Siberian
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found in the subsurface.
Jakosky, B.M., Nealson, K.H., Bakermans, C., Ley, R.E.,
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Christner, B.C., Mosley-Thompson, E., Thompson, L.G., croorganisms and the potential habitability of Mars’ po-
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Adams, E.E. (2003) Formation and character of an an- Microbiol. 71, 8773–8783.
cient 19-m ice cover and underlying trapped brine in Parkes, R.J., Cragg, B.A., and Wellsbury, P. (2000) Recent
an “ice-sealed” east Antarctic lake. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. studies on bacterial populations and processes in sub-
USA 100, 26–31. seafloor sediments: a review. Hydrogeol. J. 8, 11–28.
Kargel, J.S., Kaye, J.Z., Head, J.W., III, Marion, G.M., Pedersen, K. (1997) Microbial life in deep granitic rock.
Sassen, R., Crowley, J.K., Ballesteros, O.P., Grant, S.A., FEMS Microbiol. Rev. 20, 399–414.
and Hogenboom, D.L. (2000) Europa’s crust and ocean: Stevens, T.O. and McKinley, J.P. (1995) Lithoautotrophic
origin, composition, and the prospects for life. Icarus microbial ecosystems in deep basalt aquifers. Science
148, 226–265. 270, 450–454.
Marion, G.M., Fritsen, C.H., Eiken, H., and Payne, M.C. Whitman, W.B., Coleman, D.C., and Wiebe, W.J. (1998)
(2003) The search for life on Europa: limiting environ- Prokaryotes: the unseen majority. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci.
mental factors, potential habitats, and Earth analogues. USA 95, 6578–6583.
Astrobiology 3, 785–811.
Reysenbach, A.-L. and Cady, S.L. (2001) Microbiology of
ancient and modern hydrothermal systems. Trends Mi- Current Debates
crobiol. 9, 79–86.
Is the word “extremophile” a misnomer?
Extremophiles inhabit environments consid-
Mars
ered too harsh for humans. Likewise, conditions
The structure of the martian subsurface is be- suitable for humans are too harsh for survival of
lieved to possess similarities to Earth’s subsur- many extremophiles. Should the terminology be
face. The discovery of chemosynthetic organisms modified to be less anthropocentric?
deep within Earth’s crust implies the possibility
that organisms will be found below Mars’ sur- MacElroy, R.D. (1974) Some comments on the evolution
face. Permissive subsurface temperatures and the of extremophiles. Biosystems 6, 74–75.
possibility of liquid in rock pores suggest that
Mars could support lithotrophic organisms like Are extremophiles relevant to the origin of life?
those found on Earth. The last common ancestor at the base of the
The subsurface of Mars is also likely to contain phylogenetic tree of life is thought to be a ther-
significant amounts of water ice (see Sec. 5C). mophile (see Some like it hot . . . in Sec. 2D). If that
Documentation of life in permafrost on Earth and is the case, life on Earth may have originated in
permafrost’s ability to preserve molecular signals a hot environment, such as hydrothermal vents.
of ancient life (millions of years old) suggest that Alternatively, life may have originated in a more
the search for past or present life on Mars should neutral environment but only thermophiles sur-
include exploration of permafrost. Organisms vived the warm temperatures that resulted dur-
isolated from Siberian permafrost show growth ing a major asteroid collision with Earth.
at 10°C and metabolism at 20°C, temperatures
within the range seen at high latitudes on Mars Cleaves, H.J. and Chalmers, J.H. (2004) Extremophiles
at obliquities greater than 40°. may be irrelevant to the origin of life. Astrobiology 4,
1–9.
Amend, J.P. and Teske, A. (2005) Expanding frontiers in Di Giulio, M. (2003) The universal ancestor and the an-
deep subsurface microbiology. Palaeogeogr. Palaeoclima- cestor of bacteria were hyperthermophiles. J. Mol. Evol.
tol. Palaeoecol. 219, 131–155. 57, 721–730.
804 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

Pace, N.R. (1991) Origin of life—facing up to the physical tems. Today, major research platforms designed
setting. Cell 65, 531–533. to accommodate space biology research include
the NASA Space Shuttle fleet and the Interna-
Must an organism survive continual tional Space Station (ISS).
exposure to an extreme condition
to be called an extremophile? Kern, V.D., Bhattacharya, S., Bowman, R.N., Donovan,
F.M., Elland, C., Fahlen, T.F., Girten, B., Kirven-Brooks,
For instance, should an organism that lives M., Lagel, K., Meeker, G.B., and Santos, O. (2001) Life
within ice in spore-form be called an ex- sciences flight hardware development for the Interna-
tremophile if it is only withstanding the harsh en- tional Space Station. Adv. Space Res. 27, 1023–1030.
vironment and not necessarily thriving within it?

Rothschild, L.J. and Mancinelli, R.L. (2001) Life in extreme Environmental Conditions in Space Vehicles
environments. Nature 409, 1092–1101. The conditions inside the Space Shuttle and ISS
can be considered extreme. The ISS is a labora-
Abbreviations tory in free-fall and microgravity dominates (ap-
ATP, adenosine triphosphate; DNA, deoxyri- proximately 103 to 106 g, as compared to 1 g at
bonucleic acid; NADH, nicotinamide adenine Earth’s surface). This allows researchers (with the
dinucleotide (reduced); NADPH, nicotinamide use of a centrifuge) to simulate a variety of grav-
adenine dinucleotide phosphate (reduced). itational forces like those on the Moon and Mars.
Although the atmosphere and pressure aboard
the Space Shuttle and ISS are similar to ambient
conditions on Earth (pp N2  78.1 kPa, pp O2 
Chapter 7. Science in Space (LM)
20.9 kPa, pp H2O  1.28 kPa, pp Ar  0.97 kPa,
pp CO2  0.05 kPa, total pressure  101.3 kPa,
7A. Space Biology (JoR)
T  76°F; where pp stands for partial pressure),
While it is unknown whether life exists else- variations in temperature and atmospheric com-
where in the universe, a tiny fraction of Earth’s position may occur due to the lack of normal
organisms have been exposed to the harsh con- gravity-induced convection. For instance, warm
ditions of spaceflight. Many specimens that have air rises very slowly in microgravity requiring
experienced spaceflight were noticeably changed forced-air convection systems.
by the event. Space biology has emerged as a crit- In addition to microgravity, organisms are also
ical component of successful human space ex- exposed to high levels of radiation. The intensity
ploration, fundamental biology research, and our of ionizing radiation (including particles trapped
understanding of the limits of life. in Earth’s magnetic field, particles from solar
flares, and galactic cosmic radiation) varies with
Space Biology spacecraft position. Over the course of a 6-month
mission, ISS astronauts receive about 160 milli-
Space biology can be broadly defined as the
Seiverts of ionizing radiation during solar mini-
study of life in the spaceflight environment.
mum, the period when the sun has the least num-
Space biologists use a combination of ground
ber of sun spots. For comparison, organisms on
studies, specialized hardware, culture systems,
Earth receive approximately 2 milliSeiverts/year
and flight experiments to characterize the re-
from background radiation.
sponses of living systems to lower gravity and
increased radiation. By studying the effects of Nelson, G.A. (2003) Fundamental space radiobiology.
the spaceflight environment on life from Earth, Gravitation. Space Biol. Bulletin 16, 29–36.
space biologists are able to gain insight into fun- Todd, P. (2003) Space radiation health: a brief primer.
damental biological adaptations to gravity and Gravitation. Space Biol. Bull. 16, 1–4.
space radiation. This allows astrobiologists to
hypothesize about life on other worlds from a
The Effects of the Space Environment on Life
perspective that reaches beyond the confines of
Earth. In addition, space biology experiments Cells appear to possess a tension-dependent in-
provide critical insight into the engineering re- frastructure sensitive to mechanical stimuli. Mi-
quirements for habitats and life support sys- crotubules and filaments of a cell’s cytoskeleton
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 805

can be altered by vibration and gravity, or the Hammond, T.G., Benes, E., O’Reilly, K.C., Wolf, D.A., Lin-
lack thereof. Alteration of the cytoskeleton may nehan, R.M., Jaysen, J.H., Allen, P.L., and Goodwin, T.J.
cause a cell to respond by producing biochemi- (2000) Mechanical culture conditions effect gene ex-
pression; gravity-induced changes on the space shuttle.
cal signals affecting cell structure and function.
Physiol. Genomics 3, 163–173.
Horn, E.R. (2003) Development of gravity sensory sys-
Klaus, D.M. (2004) Gravitational influence on biomolecu- tems during periods of altered gravity dependent sen-
lar engineering processes. Gravitation. Space Biol. Bull. sory input. Adv. Space Biol. Med. 9, 133–171.
17, 51–65. Kern, V.D., Schwuchow, J.M., Reed, D.W., Nadeau, J.A.,
Lewis, M.L. (2004) The cytoskeleton in space flown cells: Lucas, J., Skripnikov, A., and Sack, F.D. (2005) Gravit-
an overview. Gravitation. Space Biol. Bull. 17, 1–11. ropic moss cells default to spiral growth on the clinos-
tat and in microgravity during spaceflight. Planta 221,
Gravity has been shown to affect metabolism, 149–157.
growth patterns, and relations between organ- Link, B.M. (2003) Seed-to-seed growth of Arabidopsis
isms. For instance, Escherichia coli strains flown thaliana on the International Space Station. Adv. Space
Res. 31, 2237–2243.
aboard seven different space shuttle missions re-
sponded to the spaceflight environment with a
shortened growth phase, extended reproduction, What Happens to the Human Body in Space?
and a final cell population density approximately Short-duration exposure (up to one year) to mi-
double that of ground controls. Movement of nu- crogravity is not life-threatening to humans,
trients and cellular waste are important elements though the spaceflight environment causes a cas-
in biological processes, and it has been suggested cade of adaptive processes that have wide-rang-
that if gravity-dependent convection and sedi- ing effects on human biology. The most immedi-
mentation are absent, metabolites may build up ate effect of spaceflight is space adaptation
in and around cells in culture. As a result, chem- syndrome (SAS), in which the neurovestibular or-
ical environmental changes within a cell may re- gans that aid in posture, balance, guidance, and
sult in a new physiological state of sustained movement send conflicting visual and balance in-
equilibrium, i.e., “spaceflight homeostasis.” formation to the brain, which causes symptoms
of disorientation, nausea, and vomiting. After an
Klaus, D., Simske, S., and Todd, P. (1997) Investigation of
space flight effects on Escherichia coli and a proposed
individual adapts to spaceflight for a few days,
model of underlying physical mechanisms. Microbiol- SAS symptoms disappear, but other changes con-
ogy 143, 449–455. tinue to occur. Body fluids shift toward the head
due to the lack of gravity, causing the body to re-
Biological changes in spaceflight suggest that spond as if is there were an overall increase in the
planetary-scale forces, such as gravity, may play volume of fluids. Reduced heart size, decreased
a significant role in the development and evolu- red blood cell counts, and reduced numbers of
tion of living systems. Microgravity can cause immune cells result in immunosuppression (re-
changes in cell shape, alter cell-to-cell contacts, duced function of the natural immune response).
and affect communication. Several different stud- Weight-bearing muscles and bones that normally
ies reveal possible changes in the growth of mul- function to oppose gravity begin to atrophy.
ticellular organisms. Even the rate at which de- Countermeasures such as exercise mitigate these
oxyribonucleic acid (DNA) is transcribed to effects but do not stop the changes entirely. In ad-
messenger ribonucleic acid (RNA) (see Sec. 3A) dition to these microgravity-related problems,
can change. space radiation presents risks of cancer, immune
If microgravity has such extensive effects on system problems, and possible neurological ef-
gene expression, it could ultimately alter all fects. The biological effects associated with space-
large-scale characteristics of an organism. High flights lasting longer than one year, and subse-
gravity during fruit-fly development alters the quent issues of Earth re-adaptation, remain
gravity-sensing system of the adult. On the unknown.
other hand, some plants seem unaffected by
Stowe, P.R., Pierson, D.L., and Barrett, A.D.T. (2001) Ele-
spaceflight. Seeds harvested from Arabidopsis vated stress hormone levels relate to Epstein-Barr virus
thaliana grown in microgravity have been suc- reactivation in astronauts. Psychosom. Med. 63, 891–895.
cessfully grown on Earth without observable Cogoli, A. (1981) Hematological and immunological
abnormalities. changes during space flight. Acta Astronaut. 8, 995–1002.
806 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

Biological Experiments in Space sions alter normally benign microbes in the hu-
man (e.g., Candida albicans) or other potentially
In general, biological experiments in space as-
pathogenic organisms known to be present in
sess organisms and tissue cultures for changes in
spacecraft (e.g., Salmonella typhimurium or
morphology, genetics, physiology, biochemistry,
Pseudomonas aeruginosa) in a way that affects their
protein composition, and behavior. An experi-
ability to cause disease? These health concerns
ment performed in space will generally have in-
may be especially problematic given the altered
flight controls and be repeated on Earth as a
human immune system during spaceflight. A
“ground control.” Organisms are grown in mi-
great deal of biological research needs to be ac-
crogravity habitats and in centrifuges (either in
complished to characterize and assess the genetic
space, on the ground, or both) to characterize the
and structural changes induced by spaceflight.
biological response to a range of gravitational
Gravity has profound effects on life. Space-
forces and radiation levels in space and on Earth.
flight environments cause biological change,
The unique environment of spaceflight allows
though the underlying mechanisms remain
space biologists to vary gravity, a force that has
unclear. An understanding of the biological
been essentially constant over the span of bio-
adaptations that occur will help astrobiologists
logical evolution.
hypothesize about life on other worlds, under
NASA (1995) Life into Space: Space Life Sciences Experiments
different gravitational constraints. It will
1965–1990, Publication number NASA/RP-1372, edited also aid in the development of the tools, life
by K. Souza, R. Hogan, and R. Ballard, Ames Research support systems, and countermeasures re-
Center, Moffett Field, CA. Available at: http://www. quired for human exploration of extraterrean
lifesci.arc.nasa.gov/lis_home/. environments.
NASA (2000) Life into Space: Space Life Sciences Experiments
1991–1998, Publication number NASA/SP-20000-534,
edited by K. Souza, G. Etheridge, and P. Callahan, Current Debates
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA. Available at:
Is gravity a requirement for life?
http://www.lifesci.arc.nasa.gov/lis_home/.
Gravity itself may be a critical force involved
Major Challenges in the development and evolution of life on this
planet and, possibly, others. In some cases, mi-
Because access to space is difficult, expensive, crogravity-like environments are simulated on
and infrequent, our understanding of the biolog- Earth with a rotating wall vessel (RWV). These
ical response to spaceflight progresses very culture systems slowly rotate to produce a re-
slowly. Experiment operations in space are also duced fluid-shear environment that is somewhat
greatly limited due to a lack of available crew similar to microgravity. The validity of the RWV
time, physical space, safety and engineering con- and other ground-based experiments as useful
straints, and a general lack of spaceflight-rated models for true microgravity is, however, an area
laboratory tools similar to those found in a typi- of active debate.
cal biology lab. Moreover, very few long-dura- Cells may be hard-wired to respond to an ex-
tion experiments have been completed, and op- ternal mechanical stress like gravity. Whether this
portunities to repeat them are rare. is a consequence of gravity or aids in sensing mi-
crogravity is unknown.
The Future of Space Biology
Ingber, D.E. (1999) How cells (might) sense microgravity.
The NASA Bioastronautics Critical Path FASEB J. 13 (Suppl), S3–S15.
Roadmap has been designed to address major Morey-Holton, E.R. (2003) Gravity, a weighty-topic. In
unanswered questions associated with long du- Evolution on Planet Earth: The Impact of the Physical En-
ration human spaceflight on ISS and possible fu- vironment, edited by L. Rothschild and A. Lister, Aca-
ture lunar and Mars missions. For example, if an demic Press, Oxford, UK, pp. 1–31.
explorer on the Moon or Mars suffers a broken Nickerson, C.A., Ott, C.M., Wilson, J.W., Ramamurthy, R.,
LeBlanc, C.L., Honer zu Bentrup, K., Hammond, T., and
leg, would specialized pharmaceuticals be re- Pierson, D.L. (2003) Low-shear modeled microgravity:
quired? Do antibiotics have the same effect in par- a global environmental regulatory signal affecting bac-
tial gravity as in 1 g? Will wound-healing occur terial gene expression, physiology, and pathogenesis. J.
at the same rate? Furthermore, can long-term mis- Microbiol. Methods 54, 1–11.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 807

7B. Planetary Missions (LM) NASDA, the National Aerospace Development


Agency, (1968–2003)
Between 1962 and 2005, over 100 interplanetary
JAXA, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, Japan
missions have been launched. Despite great tech-
(incorporates NAL, NASDA, ISAS) (2003)
nological challenges, 59 have returned images and
other data from planets, moons, asteroids, and http://www.jaxa.jp/index_e.html
comets in the solar system. NASA maintains sev-
eral websites with detailed descriptions and useful
tables detailing this information, but a brief Mercury
overview is provided here as well. The best resource (Mariner 10, Messenger)
for missions and acquired data can be found at the
NASA Space Science Data Center, which maintains To date, only one spacecraft has visited Mer-
links to official mission websites for NASA and cury. Mariner 10 (NASA, 1973) swung by the
available data for both U.S. and foreign missions. planet three times but was only able to photo-
Missions listed in parentheses below section graph one side of the planet. Messenger (NASA,
headers indicate all those spacecraft that have re- 2004) is expected to enter Mercury orbit in 2011.
turned data on the relevant object. Launch dates ESA and JAXA have slated the BepiColombo or-
are indicated within the text in parentheses, un- biters and lander for launch in 2009 and 2012.
less otherwise noted. Most interplanetary craft
and landers use solar power, though smaller lan- Venus
ders and probes use batteries. Outer solar system
missions utilize nuclear fission of plutonium, as (Mariner 2, 5, 10, Venera 4–16, Pioneer Venus
did the Viking landers. 1, 2, Vega 1, 2, Magellan, Galileo)
nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/ Venus was the first target for interplanetary
nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/timeline.html (complete missions in 1962, and 22 spacecraft have returned
list in chronological order) data from the planet. In the 1960s and 1970s, both
www.solarviews.com/eng/craft2.htm (another detailed NASA and the Soviet space agency had extensive
chronology) programs to Venus. The NASA Mariner program
included three Venus flybys—2, 5, and 10 (NASA,
Space Agencies 1962, 1967, 1973)—and was an opportunity to
NASA, National Aeronautics and Space Admin- gather science data while mastering orbital dy-
istration, United States (1962) namics. Meanwhile, the Soviet space agency was
launching approximately one mission a year and
http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/solar_system/planets/ (mis- attempting probes, flybys, and landings on the
sions)
yellow planet. The successes—labeled Venera
http://history.nasa.gov (history)
4–16 (1967–1983)—constitute the most extensive
RKA, Russian Aviation and Space Agency, Union planetary investigation prior to the current Mars
of Soviet Socialist Republics (1967–1991) initiative. Eight Venera landers successfully re-
Roscosmos or FSA, Russian Federal Space turned data, though survival in the harsh envi-
Agency, Russia (1991) ronment (465°C, 94 atm) was limited to a maxi-
mum of 127 min. Venera 15 and 16 performed the
http://www.roscosmos.ru/index.asp?LangENG radar mapping of Venus with 1–2 km resolution.
NASA and the Soviet space agency continued
ESRO, European Space Research Organization,
with additional exploratory programs. Pioneer
intergovernmental agency (1964–1974)
Venus 1 and 2 were launched by NASA in 1978.
ESA, European Space Agency, intergovernmen-
Venus 1 orbited the planet, while Venus 2 in-
tal agency (currently Austria, Belgium, Den-
cluded a series of atmospheric probes. In 1984,
mark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ire-
the Soviets returned with Vega 1 and 2, both of
land, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands,
which dropped balloons into the atmosphere. The
Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzer-
balloons survived for 2 days and surveyed
land, and the United Kingdom) (1974)
weather conditions. NASA returned to Venus in
http://www.esa.int 1989 with the Magellan orbiter, which stayed in
http://www.rssd.esa.int/index.php?projectPSA orbit for four years and mapped 98% of the sur-
808 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

face. NASA also acquired data with the Galileo missions include Phoenix, Mars Scientific Labo-
mission (1989), which performed a flyby on the ratory, and Mars 2011.
way to Jupiter. Focus has shifted to Mars in re-
cent years, however, in part because of the fact http://marsrovers.jpl.nasa.gov/home/index.html
that extreme conditions on Venus make the
search for life a somewhat futile endeavor. It Asteroids
should be noted, though, that ESA (Venus Ex- (Galileo, NEAR, Deep Space 1, Hayabusa)
press) and JAXA (Planet-C) plan to revisit Venus
in the not-too-distant future. NASA launched several missions to investigate
asteroids starting in the late eighties. The Galileo
Mars spacecraft (1989) flew by Gaspra and Ida on the
way to Jupiter. In 2001, the NEAR (Near Earth
(Mariner 3, 6, 7, and 9, Mars 2–6, Viking 1 and Asteroid Rendezvous, launched 1996) spacecraft
2, Global Surveyor, Pathfinder, Odyssey, Spirit, achieved orbit of the asteroid Eros and landed a
Opportunity, Mars Express) probe on the surface. Deep Space 1 (1998) per-
Investigation of Mars has involved almost as formed a flyby of 9969 Braille before going on to
many missions and far more data-gathering than investigate comets.
the Venus programs. NASA and the Soviet space The JAXA spacecraft Hayabusa (2003) was the
agency flew parallel programs to Mars in the first mission to collect samples on an asteroid sur-
1960s and 1970s. The NASA Mariner program in- face. It arrived at asteroid 25143 Itokawa late in
cluded three Mars flybys—3, 6, and 7 (1964, 1969, 2005 and took samples, but suffered a fuel leak
1969)—and one orbiter—9 (1971). After an initial shortly thereafter. JAXA hopes to be able to re-
flyby—Mars 1 (1962, contact lost)—the Soviets turn the spacecraft to Earth in 2010.
did not achieve successful transit to Mars until The ESA Rosetta (2004) mission plans to pass
the early 1970s. Five successful Soviet missions by asteroids Steins and Lutetia in the coming
were labeled Mars 2–6 (1971, 1971, 1973, 1973, years, before reaching its target, the comet 67P.
1973), including the first lander to return data Mission managers hope to achieve sample return
(Mars 3). In 1975, NASA landed two large re- in 2007. Also, a private company in the US has
search platforms, Viking 1 and 2, at Chryse Plani- plans to launch NEAP (Near Earth Asteroid
tia (22.697°N, 48.222°W) and Utopia Planitia Prospector) before the end of the decade to in-
(48.269°N, 225.990°W). (See also Exploration His- vestigate the asteroid Nereus.
tory in Sec. 5C). After a hiatus of 13 years, the So-
viet Phobos 2 spacecraft successfully returned Comets
data from Mars orbit, but the attempted landing
(ISEE 3/ICE, Vega 1, 2, Sakigake, Suisei, Giotto,
on the moon Phobos failed.
Deep Space 1, Stardust, Deep Impact)
A new Mars initiative was started by NASA
in the 1990s. Launched in 1996, the Mars Global The return of comet Halley in 1986 inspired a
Surveyor orbiter supported Pathfinder, a new number of missions to investigate comets. The US
generation of lander with a rover. Having spacecraft ISEE 3 (International Sun-Earth Ex-
proved the concept with Pathfinder, NASA plorer, 1978) flew by the comet Giacobini-Zinner
launched Mars Odyssey orbiter (2001) to sup- and, later, the comet Halley. Renamed ICE (In-
port two larger rovers, Spirit and Opportunity ternational Cometary Explorer) in 1991, the
(2003). Pathfinder set down in Ares Vallis spacecraft continued to make observations until
(19.33°N, 33.55°W), Spirit in Gusev Crater 1997. Soviet Vega 1 and 2 (1984), Japanese Saki-
(14.82°S, 184.85°W), and Opportunity in Terra gake and Suisei (1985), and European Giotto
Meridiani (2.07°S, 6.08°W). Spirit and Opportu- (1985) missions all flew by comet Halley and col-
nity continue to return data. NASA is also col- lected data. Giotto went on to flyby comet Grigg-
lecting data from orbit by way of the Mars Ex- Skjellerup.
press (joint project with ESA) and Mars The United States has launched three other
Reconnaissance Orbiter missions. cometary missions. Deep Space 1 (1998) failed to
NASA plans to continue investigation of Mars rendezvous with comet Wilson-Harrington be-
with the eventual goal of sample return. These cause of a failed star tracker, but managed a flyby
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 809

of comet Borelly in 2001, passing through the Galileo (1989) proceeded to Jupiter orbit, dropped
comet’s coma. Deep Impact (2005) has already en- a probe into the atmosphere, and flew by Jupiter’s
countered comet Tempel 1 and recorded the ef- four largest moons. In 2003, the orbiter finally
fects of firing a projectile into the comet. Stardust succumbed to gravity and dropped into Jupiter’s
(1999) was designed as a sample collection mis- atmosphere. (See also Sec. 5D, for information on
sion. In 2000, it gathered a sample of interstellar Jupiter’s moon Europa.)
dust; in 2002, it collected dust near comet 5535 ESA entered the arena with Ulysses (1990) mis-
Annefrank; and in 2003, it entered the coma of sion, which performed a flyby of Jupiter before
comet P/Wild 2 to take samples. In January of transfer to a heliospheric orbit for investigation
2006, Stardust return samples landed in Utah. of the Sun. ESA also participated in the Cassini/
Analysis of the dust particles suggests that Huygens (1997) mission. Cassini (NASA) briefly
comets may be more complex in composition and passed by Jupiter before arriving in Saturn orbit
history than previously expected. One example is in late 2004. In addition to observations of Saturn
the presence of olivine, which is formed at high and its moons, it delivered an ESA probe (Huy-
temperatures and thought not to be present in the gens) to Titan. Cassini continues to return data.
outer solar system. To date, no missions have visited Pluto/
The ESA Rosetta mission (2004) was created to Charon or the Kuiper belt, though the NASA
provide an orbiter and a lander for the comet 67P. New Horizons mission (2006) is scheduled to
Rendezvous is expected in 2014. Additionally, reach Pluto in 2015.
NASA is developing the Dawn mission for ren-
dezvous with asteroids Vesta and Ceres (launch 7C. Planetary Protection (PP)
in 2006). (MR, LB, JRm)
Introduction
Outer Solar System
PP refers to the practice of preventing human-
(Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1, 2, Galileo, caused biological cross contamination between
Ulysses, Cassini/Huygens) Earth and other Solar System bodies during space
Seven spacecraft have been launched to inves- exploration. PP aims to avoid the transport of mi-
tigate planets in the outer solar system, starting crobes that could cause irreversible changes in the
with the NASA Pioneer missions. Because of the environments of celestial bodies (planets, moons,
huge distances involved and the distance from asteroids, comets) or jeopardize scientific investi-
the Sun, solar power was judged insufficient to gations of possible extraterrean life forms, pre-
power spacecraft. All use power from redundant cursors, and remnants. In practical terms, two
radioisotope thermonuclear generators. concerns predominate: avoiding (1) forward con-
tamination, the transport of terrean microbes on
http://www.saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/spacecraft/safety/pow outbound spacecraft, and (2) back contamination,
er.pdf (radioisotope thermonuclear generator informa- the introduction of extraterrean life to Earth by
tion for Cassini) returning spacecraft.
Planetary protection has been a serious concern
NASA launched Pioneer 10 (1972) and 11 since the start of the Space Age. International
(1973) to investigate Jupiter. Both spacecraft flew quarantine standards for solar system exploration
by Jupiter and continued onward. Pioneer 11 ob- were drafted shortly after the launch of Sputnik.
served Saturn in a flyby. After passing the Kuiper The U.N. Outer Space Treaty of 1967 articulated
Belt, both eventually ran too low on power to re- the policy that guides spacefaring nations even to-
turn signals—11 in 1995 and 10 in 2003. Voyager day. The international Committee on Space Re-
1 and 2 (NASA, 1975) flew twice as much mass search (COSPAR) is the focal point of PP activi-
as the Pioneer missions and began a more com- ties. It maintains and revises policies to reflect
prehensive tour of the outer planets. Voyager 1 advances in scientific understanding and techno-
visited Saturn and Jupiter, while Voyager 2 vis- logical capabilities. In the United States, NASA is
ited all four gas giants. Both are passing outside responsible for implementation and compliance
the influence of solar wind and continue to re- with appropriate planetary protection policy for
turn data. After passing Venus and two asteroids, all space missions. NASA’s Planetary Protection
810 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

Officer establishes detailed implementation re- For each mission, NASA develops and imple-
quirements for specific mission types in accor- ments a Planetary Protection Plan. The process
dance with COSPAR policy and NASA directives. involves the scheduling and implementation of
required measures during design, construction,
http://planetaryprotection.nasa.gov (official website) assembly, and prelaunch phases as well as docu-
Rummel, J.D. and Billings, L. (2004) Issues in planetary mentation and certification throughout.
protection: policy, protocol, and implementation. Space
Policy 20, 49–54.
One-Way Missions
Implementation of a robotic mission’s PP Plan
Mission Requirements
involves a number of activities. Depending on the
COSPAR policy currently specifies PP controls particular mission, these may include the analy-
for five categories of target-body/mission types, sis of orbital lifetimes and accidental impacts, use
dependent on degree of scientific interest and the of microbiological assays to monitor cleanness
potential for contamination. The most stringent during assembly, sterilization and cleaning of the
category applies to round-trip missions with sam- spacecraft and/or hardware (e.g., dry heat), pro-
ple return. One-way robotic missions have vary- tection of the spacecraft from recontamination
ing and lesser levels of controls depending on their prior to launch, and documentation of compli-
target body (e.g., moon, planet, asteroid, comet, ance through all mission phases.
etc.) and mission type (orbiter, flyby, lander, rover,
penetrator, etc.). Over the years, NASA has often Sample Return Missions
sought scientific advice on PP from the Space Stud-
Round-trip missions—particularly those re-
ies Board of the National Research Council, which
turning from places with the potential for har-
has issued numerous reports and recommenda-
boring life—must include measures to avoid both
tions related to both robotic and human missions.
forward contamination of the target body and
National Research Council (1997) Mars Sample Return: Is- back contamination of Earth. For example, for
sues and Recommendations. Task Group on Issues Sample sample return missions from Mars, all materials
Return Study, National Academy Press, Washington, that have been exposed to the martian surface
DC. Available at: http://www.nap.edu/. will be considered biohazardous until proven
National Research Council (1998) Evaluating the Biological otherwise by rigorous testing in an appropriate
Potential in Samples Returned from Planetary Satellites and containment facility. Conceptual requirements
Small Solar System Bodies: Framework for Decision Mak-
for a test protocol were developed through a se-
ing, National Academy Press, Washington, DC. Avail-
able at: http://www.nap.edu/. ries of international workshops.
National Research Council (2006) Preventing the Forward
Contamination of Mars, National Research Council, Na- NASA (2002) A Draft Test Protocol for Detecting Possible
tional Academy Press, Washington, DC. Available at: Biohazards in Martian Samples Returned to Earth, edited
http://www.nap.edu/. by J.D. Rummel, M.S. Race, D.L. DeVincenzi, P.J. Schad,
P.D. Stabekis, M. Viso, and S.E. Acevedo, Publication
number NASA/CP-2002-211842, National Aeronautics
PP contributes to astrobiological research and and Space Administration, Washington, DC.
solar system exploration. Both pursuits seek to de-
termine whether extraterrean bodies host indige-
Human Missions
nous life and whether such life would be related
to Earth life. Answering these questions requires PP requirements for human missions have not
the avoidance of forward contamination—both yet been developed, but appropriate controls will
microbes and organic constituents that could in- undoubtedly involve ongoing research and tech-
terfere with in situ science observations (e.g., liv- nology development based on data from precur-
ing or dead organisms or parts, as well as life re- sor robotic missions about the presence of possi-
lated materials such as proteins, lipids, DNA, RNA ble extraterrean life and the prospect for special
and organic molecules of biogenic origin; see Sec. regions with the potential for liquid water. Al-
3A). PP requirements aim to minimize contami- though human missions to Mars are decades
nation by reducing the microbiological burden and away, recent workshops have undertaken pre-
maintaining organic cleanliness throughout space- liminary discussions on technical, scientific, op-
craft assembly, testing, and prelaunch. erational, and policy issues that must be ad-
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 811

dressed to enable safe human exploration mis- Cox, A.N. (2000) Allen’s Astrophysical Quantities, 4th ed.,
sions in the future. Springer-Verlag, New York.

NASA (2005) Planetary Protection Issues in the Human Ex- FIG. 2.1. Solar System Bodies (AvM) (p. 749)
ploration of Mars, Pingree Park Final Workshop Report,
Publication number NASA/CP-2005-213461, edited by A. Orbital Parameters
M.E. Criswell, M.S. Race, J.D. Rummel, and A. Baker,
Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA.
Orbital parameters for the Solar System plan-
NASA (2006) Life Support and Habitation and Planetary Pro- ets, the asteroid/comet parent distributions, and
tection Workshop, Final Report of LSH & PP Workshop, several important planetary satellites.
Publication number NASA/TM-2006-213485, edited by
J.A. Hogan, M.S. Race, J.W. Fisher, J.A. Joshi, and J.D.
Rummel, Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA. B. Planetary Properties
Planetary properties for Solar System planets,
Abbreviations the asteroid/comet parent distributions, and sev-
COSPAR, Committee on Space Research; eral important planetary satellites. Values with
DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid; ESA, European question marks are uncertain because of obser-
Space Agency; ICE, International Cometary Ex- vational limitations. Compositional components
plorer; ISEE, International Sun–Earth Explorer; are listed in order of concentration by mass.
ISS, International Space Station; JAXA, Japan
Carroll, B.W. and Ostlie, D.A. (1996) An Introduction to
Aerospace Exploration Agency; NASA, National
Modern Astrophysics, Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA.
Aeronautics and Space Administration; pp, par- http://pds.jpl.nasa.gov/planets
tial pressure; PP, Planetary Protection; RNA, ri-
bonucleic acid; RWV, rotating wall vessel; SAS,
FIG. 2.2. Geologic Time Scale (LM) (p. 757)
space adaptation syndrome.
This representation of the geologic time scale
of Earth was generated by using the International
Notes on Figures Commission on Stratigraphy website. The mar-
tian time scale was generated from the primary
FIG. 1.1. Local Numbers (LM) (p. 741) literature. Thanks to Andrew Knoll for help in in-
terpretation and presentation.
FIG. 1.2. Color-Magnitude Diagram (KvB)
(p. 743) http://www.stratigraphy.org

Data are discussed in von Braun et al. (2002).


FIG. 2.3. The History of Atmospheric O2
von Braun, K., Mateo, M., Chiboucas, K., Athey, A., and (MC) (p. 763)
Hurley-Keller, D. (2002) Photometry results for the This diagram also appears in Catling and Claire
globular clusters M10 and M12: extinction maps, color-
(2005) and is here by permission of the authors.
magnitude diagrams, and variable star candidates. As-
tron. J. 124, 2067.
Catling, D.C. and Claire, M. (2005) How Earth’s atmos-
phere evolved to an oxic state: a status report. Earth
FIG. 1.3. Stellar Properties (KvB, AvM) Planet. Sci. Lett. 237, 1–20.
(p. 744)
Intrinsic properties of the main sequence spec- FIG. 4.1. Important Events in the
tral types, post-main sequence stellar states, and Precambrian (EJ) (p. 779)
Jupiter and Earth are given for comparison. Lu- Geological time scale with important geologi-
minosity is over all wavelengths (except for pul- cal and biological events in the Precambrian in-
sars), average temperature is the blackbody tem- corporates some information from Brocks et al.
perature, and main sequence lifetime assumes (2003).
that the Sun has a main sequence lifetime of 10
billion years. Appearance was determined with Brocks, J.J., Buick, R., Summons, R.E., and Logan, G.A.
the help of: http://www.mi.infm.it/manini/ (2003) A reconstruction of Archean biological diversity
dida/BlackBody.html?textBox5000 based on molecular fossils from the 2.78–2.45 billion year
812 2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER

old Mount Bruce Supergroup, Hamersley Basin, West- Mitochondria fall within the alpha-proteobacte-
ern Australia. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 67, 4321–4335. ria, while chloroplasts fall at the base of the
cyanobacteria on the basis of SSU rRNA phyloge-
FIG. 5.1. Extrasolar Planets (AvM) (p. 784) nies (see previous diagram). It should be noted
Properties of the 149 extrasolar planets discov- that research on endosymbiosis—encapsulation of
ered by February 2005. Extrasolar planets are de- one organism by another as in the case of chloro-
fined as orbiting a parent star and, therefore, do plasts and mitochondria—is ongoing. Mitochon-
not include free-floating brown dwarfs. Mass and drial remnants have been found in the organisms
distance limits are defined by the completeness at the base of the tree, which suggests that mito-
limit for radial velocity surveys. chondria entered Eukarya earlier than the arrow
suggests and were lost in the oldest branches. Sim-
A. Extrasolar Planet Mass Distribution ilarly, there is growing evidence that a single en-
dosymbiotic event is responsible for the incorpo-
B. Extrasolar Planet Orbital Characteristics ration of cyanobacteria. Both chlorophytes and
http://www.obspm.fr/encycl/encycl.html (maintained rhodophytes have primary endosymbioses—they
by Jean Schneider) picked up cyanobacteria—and this may represent
a single event preceding the divergence of the two
FIG. 5.2. The Habitable Zone around Main groups. Other eukaryotes acquired phototrophy
Sequence Stars (AvM) (p. 786) by picking up chlorophytes or rhodophytes (sec-
ondary endosymbiosis), or another eukaryote (ter-
Location of the habitable zone for different stel-
tiary endosymbiosis).
lar types. Modified from Kasting et al. (1993).
Phylogenetic information is available from
Kasting, J.F., Whitmire, D.P., and Reynolds, R.T. (1993) a number of publicly available sites. Most
Habitable zones around main-sequence stars. Icarus notable are the taxonomy browser run by
101, 108–128. the National Center for Biotechnology Informa-
tion (taxonomic nomenclature), the Tree of Life
FIGS. 6.1–3. The Tree of Life (LM) Web Project (large-scale phylogenies), and Ribo-
(pp. 794–795) somal Database Project out of Michigan State
University (publicly available RNA sequences).
All three “Tree of Life” diagrams come from sim-
See also Endosymbiosis in Sec. 4D.
plifications of phylogenetic analyses on small sub-
unit ribosomal RNA (SSU rRNA) using the method http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/Taxonomy/taxonomy-
known as neighbor joining. (See Sec. 3A for the home.html
molecule and Sec. 4B for the methodology.) It http://www.tolweb.org/tree/phylogeny.html
should be noted that, while most conceptions of the http://www.rdp.cme.msu.edu/index.jsp
tree of life are based on SSU rRNA analyses, there
is currently debate as to whether they are truly rep- FIG. 6.4. Characteristics of the Three
resentative of historical relationships. The trees Domains (OJ) (p. 796)
have been modified from their web-based versions,
and all mistakes should be attributed to the editor.
FIG. 6.5. Redox Potentials and Life (GD)
FIGS. 6.1 (Archaea) and 6.2 (Bacteria) (p. 798)
These trees were generated using data pub- Copied by permission and formatted from a
lished by Norman Pace. The trees have been sig- presentation by Kenneth Nealson.
nificantly modified.
FIG. 6.6. The Limits of Known Life on
http://www.pacelab.colorado.edu/PI/norm.html Earth (AnM) (p. 800)
FIG. 6.3 (Eukarya) Adapted from Marion et al. (2003).
Copied and modified by permission from Marion, G.M., Fritsen, C.H., Eiken, H., and Payne, M.C.
Mitchell Sogin’s website. (2003) The search for life on Europa: limiting environ-
mental factors, potential habitats, and Earth analogues.
http://www.mbl.edu/labs/Sogin/Pages/rg.html Astrobiology 3, 785–811.
2006 ASTROBIOLOGY PRIMER 813

FIG. 6.7. Extremophiles (AnM) (p. 801) For a limited time free copies of the Astrobiology
Primer can be downloaded from the Astrobiology
This list is not comprehensive but does include
website at http://www.liebertpub.com/ast
some examples of extremophiles. Adapted from
Rothschild and Mancinelli (2001) and Cavicchioli
Address reprint requests to:
(2002).
Lucas John Mix
Rothschild, L.J. and Mancinelli, R.L. (2001) Life in extreme 8700 196th Ave NE
environments. Nature 409, 1092–1101. Redmond, WA 98053
Cavicchioli, R. (2002) Extremophiles and the search for
extraterrestrial life. Astrobiology 2, 281–292. E-mail: lucas@flirble.org