MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. – NASA is awarding five-year grants to four research teams that will become new members of the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI).

The new multidisciplinary teams are led by the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena; Montana State University, Bozeman; and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge. For the first 18 months of research, teams will receive $350,000 in funding. The five-year average grant size is approximately $7 million per team.

“These teams have proposed exciting research that is complementary to work being done by other NAI members,” said NAI Director Carl Pilcher, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif. “The selection of these teams forms an excellent foundation for entering the institute’s second decade.”

Astrobiology is the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe. In 1998, NASA founded the Astrobiology Institute, a virtual research institution based at Ames, to stimulate and support this multidisciplinary field of research and education as part of NASA’s overall science portfolio.

The University of Wisconsin team, headed by Clark Johnson, proposes to study organic and mineralogical signatures and environments of life on Earth and other planets. This team’s work focuses on technologies for the detection of microbial life from its subtle effects on rock chemistry. These technologies will examine ancient rocks on Earth, paving the way for eventual instruments to search for signatures of life on Mars.

The California Institute of Technology team, led by Victoria Meadows, will extend research done within the NAI from 2001 to 2006. This team has developed a Virtual Planetary Laboratory to explore the habitability and biosignatures of extrasolar, Earth-like planets. These scientists use computer models of planets with different sizes, temperatures and atmospheres to investigate how the presence of life on such planets could be detected telescopically.

The Montana State University team is headed by John Peters. Its focus is on the origin of life, investigating the role of iron-sulfide compounds in the transition from the non-living to the living world. This work will support the mission of NASA in the area of prebiotic chemistry and the development of signatures for terrestrial and extraterrestrial life.

Roger Summons leads the MIT team. The team will investigate requirements for the development of multicellular life in Earth’s ancient past. They will concentrate on organic biosignatures preserved in the rock record and the state of the Earth’s early atmosphere, and will investigate the critical genetic pathways that constrained and supported early life while multicellularity developed.

“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.

The addition of these new teams brings the membership of the NASA Astrobiology Institute to 16, selected with staggered 5-year terms. The astrobiology teams are widely distributed throughout nearly 150 universities and other research institutions, including numerous international affiliates.

More than 500 research scientists work in these teams, and there is a strong focus on public education and the training of the next generation of astrobiologists. 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.

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