Artist's conception. Credit Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Washington, DC—Carnegie’s Andrew Steele is a member of the Earth First Origins project, led by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s Karyn Rogers, which has been awarded a $9 million grant by NASA’s Astrobiology Program.

The five-year project seeks to uncover the conditions on early Earth that gave rise to life by identifying, replicating, and exploring how prebiotic molecules and chemical pathways could have formed under realistic early Earth conditions.

The evolution of planet Earth and the emergence of life during its first half-billion years are inextricably linked, with a series of planetwide transformations – formation of the ocean, evolution of the atmosphere, and the growth of crust and continents – underpinning the environmental stepping stones to life. But how, and in what order, were the ingredients for life on Earth manufactured and assembled?

“Planet Earth and the chemistry of life share the same road,” said Rogers. “Because of that co-evolution, we can use our understanding of the fundamental planetary processes that set the Earth system in motion to sketch the physical, chemical, and environmental map to life.”

The team will be comprised of experts in planetary evolution, early Earth geochemistry, prebiotic and experimental astrobiology, and analytical chemistry.  Complemented by a team of molecular biologists, geochemical modelers, and data and visualization experts.

The Earth First Origins project will establish both a physical lab space and a virtual environment, which will be a resource for all team members, as well as the larger community of origin-of-life scientists.

“I am eager to collaborate with this exciting team and deploy this unique suite of laboratory and virtual tools to explore the realm of possible early Earth environments,” Steele said.

The lab-based instruments will mimic temperature, pressure, geochemical, and dynamic conditions of early Earth environments. The virtual suite will enable the team to use data visualization techniques to drive new discoveries.

The Earth First Origins team includes:

- Jun Korenaga, professor of geology and geophysics at Yale University
- Tom McCollom research associate in the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at University of Colorado Boulder
- Jeff Catalano, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis
- Dustin Trail, assistant professor of earth and environmental sciences at University of Rochester
- Susan Lang, assistant professor of earth, ocean and environment at University of South Carolina
- Aaron Goldman, assistant professor of biology at Oberlin College
- Janet Iwasa, assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Utah
- Douglas LaRowe, associate research professor of earth sciences at University of Southern California.

Caption: Artist's conception courtesy of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

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Earth/Planetary Science