Life Underground, a game developed by the Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, takes players on a journey into the depths and extremes of the Earth, and it’s available to download! The game is an interactive outreach experience for 7th and 8th grade classrooms. The goal is for students to visualize microscopic life at a range of terrestrial and extraterrestrial subsurface conditions. Students take the role of a young scientist investigating extreme subsurface environments for microbial life. They will navigate through extreme conditions, including those of temperature, pressure, acidity, and energy limitations, and they will begin to recognize what characterizes life in this context.
Title: Genomic Memories of the Past: Using Microbial Genomics to Examine the Co-Evolution of Earth and Life. Abstract: Since the origin of life over 4 billion years ago, life has fundamentally altered the habitability of Earth, and the environment has molded the evolutionary trajectory of life itself. Microbial genomes retain a “memory” of this evolution. I will present two examples of how we can use genomics to study the co-evolution of Earth and life in the recent and distant past. To examine evolutionary trends in the more recent past, we have used metagenomics to investigate environmental drivers in the evolution of microbes in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, which are thought to have been important habitats for life’s early evolution. We have shown that microbial populations in a deep, basalt-hosted system appear to be under stronger purifying selection than populations inhabiting a cooler serpentinizing system less than 20 km away, suggesting that environmental context has an important impact on evolutionary trends. However, we can also examine evolutionary trends in Earth’s distant past through comparative genomics. By reconciling phylogenetic trees for microbial species with trees of metabolic genes, we can determine approximately when crucial metabolic genes began to spread across the tree of life through horizontal gene transfer. Using these methods, we conducted an analysis of the relative timing of the spread of nitrogen-metabolizing genes, and have found that genes related to denitrification began to spread across the tree of life after the Great Oxidation Event. In contrast, genes related to nitrogen fixation appear to have spread much earlier, consistent with geochemical evidence. As the sequencing revolution supplies ever more data about the tree of life, studies that couple genomics approaches with environmental context have the potential to reveal important insights into the co-evolution of life and Earth over time.
Featuring the C-DEBI NSF REU: C4 program.
Fall is officially upon us, but not too long ago early career astrobiologists were keeping busy throughout the summer season organizing conferences, presenting research, coauthoring papers, and conducting research out in the field.
Here we capture just a few of the activities and achievements of interns and young scientists engaged in astrobiology-related programs this summer—students making great impressions as they make great strides in their education and careers.