The Space Studies Board, in cooperation with the Board on Life Sciences, will hold an exploratory workshop for the purpose of discussing a potential new study activity. The focus of the discussion will be on “weird life”, i.e. forms of life that could be different from familiar terrestrial life. Active researchers and representatives of appropriate federal agencies will be invited to participate. The product of the workshop is expected to be a proposal describing an NRC study in this area, most likely to be conducted by the SSB-BLS Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life (COEL).


The goal of the meeting will be to determine if the questions related to life that is different from terrestrial life are worth delving into via a formal NRC study. If so, preliminary discussion is expected on what are the key issues to be covered in such a study, what expertise would be needed perform it, and what sort of report or output would be most useful to potential sponsors of the activity. These discussions, while necessarily speculative, are particularly timely given NASA’s advanced planning for sample-return missions from Mars and developing interest in in-situ exploration of the suspected interior oceans on Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, and organic-rich environments such as Titan. Life-related studies limited to a purely terrestrial biochemical perspective are unnecessarily constraining given the diversity of locales available for study in the next decade.

Discussion topics are expected to include the following:

  • Definitions of life;
  • New theories about the origin of life and the predicted intermediate stages leading to life;
  • Possible novel energetic pathways;
  • The possibility of information-containing macromolecules that are different from
    terrestrial organisms (DNA, RNA); and
  • The origin of catalytic systems and of catalytic proteins.

    Related research questions may involve how to detect novel forms of life, what sorts of environments could or would support “weird life”, and what kinds of data should be gathered about potential extraterrestrial habitats.


    A one-day workshop will be held to bring together a small group of experts to discuss these issues. This planning session will take place early in April, 2002. Attendees will be a mix of researchers in fields relevant to the “weird life” questions and representatives from the relevant government agencies. John Baross, co-chair of the Committee on the Origins and Evolution of Life, will chair the meeting. The day will be split approximately equally between short presentations and informal discussion. For example, one approach could be a morning session including five talks (definitions of life, alternate biochemistries, the origin of metabolic pathways, organic/mineral associations, and the origin of structure in cellular life) and an afternoon drafting a series of lists (topics to be included and excluded from a study, key people in relevant fields, important questions that would shape agencies’ research portfolios, etc.) to help guide further development of an NRC activity in this area.


    It is anticipated that the workshop participants will endorse an NRC study in this area, in which case the SSB and BLS expect to develop a proposal describing the questions that an NRC study would seek to address. COEL is the most likely unit to undertake the new study once it is approved and funded.