JPL researchers have been chosen by NASA to be one of
four new teams that will be part of the agency’s Astrobiology
Institute, a national and international research consortium
that studies the origin, evolution, distribution and future of
life on Earth and in the universe.

After a highly competitive peer-review process, teams
from JPL, Michigan State University, East Lansing, the
University of Rhode Island, Kingston and the University of
Washington in Seattle have been notified of their selection.

Dr. Victoria Meadows will lead the JPL team, which will
conduct research on recognizing the biospheres of extrasolar
planets. The results of her team’s work are expected to
directly influence the development of future space missions
such as Terrestrial Planet Finder, which will look for
habitable planets around other “Suns.” Terrestrial Planet
Finder is one of the missions of NASA’s Origins Program, which
seeks to answer the questions: Where did we come from? Are
we alone?

“This work will help us determine what the signatures of
life on an extrasolar planet will look like, once we have the
technology to study them,” Meadows said.

JPL has been active in the astrobiology field since 1997
by forming an astrobiology research element, and element lead
Dr. Kenneth Nealson was a recipient of the original round of
Astrobiology Institute grants in 1998 to study the co-
evolution of planets and biospheres.

These new teams of researchers will bring specialized
expertise to the institute, allowing its members to more
deeply investigate the diversity of life inhabiting extreme
environments on Earth, and to develop analytical models to
search for habitable planets outside our solar system.

The Michigan State team, led by Dr. Michael Thomashow,
will examine low-temperature Earth analogs to possible life on
Mars and Europa by analyzing genetic material and proteins of
bacteria from Arctic and Antarctic permafrost. Data from the
gene-expression analysis will be important for understanding
the biology of “hitchhiker” microbes traveling through space
on meteorites and other bodies.

The University of Rhode Island team, led by Dr. Steven
D’Hondt, will examine the deep biosphere of the Earth and the
“extremophile” communities that thrive in this extreme
environment. This research will include developing bio-
geochemical markers for life for use on future astrobiology

The University of Washington team, led by Dr. Peter Ward,
will address a broad series of important areas in
astrobiology, ranging from biogeochemistry of the earliest
life on Earth to the formation, evolution and potential for
life on planets outside our solar system.

With these additions, the Astrobiology Institute now
represents a partnership between NASA and 14 major national
and three international research institutions to promote,
conduct and lead integrated, multidisciplinary astrobiology
research and to train a new generation of researchers in the
discipline of astrobiology. Founded in 1997, the institute’s
central offices are located at NASA’s Ames Research Center,
Moffett Field, Calif. JPL is managed for NASA by the
California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

More information on the NASA Astrobiology Institute is
available at . More information on
Terrestrial Planet Finder is available at .