Montana State University

MSU researcher to help lead $7 million project into rock-powered life

October 9, 2014 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

Eric Boyd of MSU is deputy director of a new team investigating the origins and future of life. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham).

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 BOZEMAN – A new $7 million project to investigate the origins and future of life in the universe will involve a Montana State University researcher and several MSU students.

Eric Boyd of MSU is deputy director of the “Rock-Powered Life” team led by the University of Colorado and funded with a new five-year grant from NASA. Scientists from a variety of disciplines and institutions will work together to understand how rocks and water interact at low temperatures to release energy capable of supporting microbial life.

Their findings will inform our understanding of the processes that fueled early life on Earth, as well as the habitability of Mars and icy satellites like Europa, Boyd said. Their fieldwork will take them to an observatory in Oman and the California Coast Range. It will also involve drilling deep into the North Atlantic Ocean to obtain samples. These environments were chosen because they have exposed iron-rich ultramafic rocks that at one time were part of the Earth’s upper mantle, Boyd said.

“Rocky planets store enormous amounts of chemical energy that can power living systems when this energy is released through the interaction of rocks with water,” Boyd said. He added that chemical energy released when ultramafic minerals interact with water is thought to have fueled early, primitive forms of life.

“We suspect these environments will still harbor ancestors of these early primitive forms of life,” Boyd said. “Identifying what primitive forms of life look like and what minerals are formed as a result of their activity will help inform our search for life outside of Earth.”

NASA announced this week that it had awarded five-year grants totaling almost $50 million to seven research teams nationwide to study the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

“With the Curiosity rover characterizing the potential habitability of Mars, the Kepler mission discovering new planets outside our solar system and Mars 2020 on the horizon, these research teams will provide the critical interdisciplinary expertise to help interpret data from these missions and future astrobiology-focused missions,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The $7 million that went to the Rock-Powered Life team will be distributed across a network of university and government scientists, Boyd said. With the MSU share, he and a graduate student will be able to conduct fieldwork and laboratory research. They, along with MSU undergraduates, will characterize the processes that sustain microorganisms in these modern analogs of primitive Earth habitats. They will be able to communicate with the rest of the team without leaving campus to meet in person through the use of advanced videoconferencing technology available at MSU.

Members of the larger team will analyze such things as the geochemistry and mineralogy of the rocks in attempts to identify signatures of microbial processes, Boyd said. They will quantify microbial activities in rocks and sediments and will study the genetics and biochemistry of this microbial life.

The wider team includes geobiologists, geochemists, geo-microbiologist, microbial ecologist, geomagnetists and a philosopher whose collective expertise will converge in the study of this interesting astrobiology question, Boyd said. Besides MSU and the University of Colorado, they come from Arizona State University, the Colorado School of Mines, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, the University of Rhode Island, the University of Utah, and the NASA Ames Research Center.

Boyd said he became involved in the project after attending a workshop where he met Alexis Templeton, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado. Since both wanted to understand more about how early life was sustained when water interacted with minerals in rocks, they formed a collaboration. Templeton was the perfect lead for the project, Boyd said.

Especially exciting is the fact that the new project involves so many scientists who are early in their careers, Boyd said. With an average age of say 40, “Our team is very hungry to define new insights into early life and to advance our knowledge of processes that might support life outside of Earth.”

Boyd is a former fellow in the NASA Postdoctoral Program and a current NASA Early Career fellow. He is an assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu