Montana State University

MSU joins NASA team investigating universe, receives $6 million

May 11, 2007 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
msunews@montana.edu
BOZEMAN -- Researchers at Montana State University have been chosen to join NASA in studying the origin and future of life in this universe.

As one of four new members of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, MSU will receive approximately $6 million during the five years of the grant. Other new members are the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Each of these teams brings something important to NASA's overall portfolio in astrobiology, and to the future success of missions in planetary science, astronomy and earth science," said Colleen Hartman, deputy associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.

Astrobiologists study the origin, distribution and future of life in the universe. What they learn on earth may teach them about life on other planets.

"MSU continues to be recognized for its world-class research, faculty, staff and students," said MSU President Geoff Gamble.

Tom McCoy, MSU vice president for research, creativity and technology transfer, said, "Becoming a team member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute is an incredible tribute to the quality of research being conducted at MSU. The MSU team led by John Peters is conducting research on identifying ways to recognize the signatures of emerging life forms elsewhere in the universe."

Dave Dooley, MSU provost and vice president for academic affairs, said, "It is interesting to note that the other universities selected were Caltech, MIT and the University of Wisconsin. This speaks volumes about the quality of our faculty and our research capabilities. It is also important to note that these faculty are among our best teachers, and that undergraduates will be directly involved in the research activities supported by this award."

John Peters, head of MSU's Thermal Biology Institute, is director and principal investigator of MSU's Astrobiology Institute Team. Other team members are Trevor Douglas, head of MSU's Center for Bio-Inspired Nanomaterials; Mark Young, plant sciences & plant pathology; Joan Broderick, Tim Minton and Robert Szilagyi, chemistry; and Prasanta Bandyopadhyay, history and philosophy.

"It's a fantastic validation of the work being done at MSU," Douglas said of MSU's selection.

Young, director of the MSU EPSCoR program, said, "This is an example of Montana's long-term investment in science paying off to do national and internationally-recognized work addressing some of the fundamental issues of interest to everyone."

Peters said the NASA membership will allow MSU scientists and graduate students to conduct fundamental research with far-reaching impacts. They will focus on the origin of life, investigating the role of iron-sulfide compounds in the transition from the non-living to living world. Understanding how life emerged on this planet will help scientists know what they're seeing when they search for life on other planets, Peters added.

According to a NASA press release, "The basic research carried out in the institute directly supports many NASA missions, such as exploration of Mars and the search for planets around other stars, including investigations of the habitability of other worlds."

MSU's project will bridge the missions of the Thermal Biology Institute (TBI) and the Center for Bio-Inspired Nano-materials (CBIN), Peters said. TBI focuses on the extreme environments of Yellowstone National Park and deals with questions that relate to the origin of life. CBIN focuses on understanding materials in the nano-scale.

NASA founded the Astrobiology Institute in 1998. Its 16 members include the four new members and 12 previously-chosen members: the Carnegie Institution of Washington, University of Colorado, Boulder; NASA Ames Research Center, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Indiana University, Marine Biological Laboratory, Pennsylvania State University, SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute, University of Arizona, University of California, Berkeley; University of California, Los Angeles; and University of Hawaii, Manoa.

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