Andrew Steele uses traditional and biotechnological approaches for the detection of microbial life in the field of astrobiology and Solar System exploration. Astrobiology is the search for the origin and distribution of life in the universe. A microbiologist by training, his principle interest is in developing protocols, instrumentation, and procedures for life detection in samples from the early Earth and elsewhere in the Solar System.

Steele has developed several instrument and mission concepts for future Mars missions and became involved in the 2011 Mars Science Laboratory mission as a member of the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) team. For  a number of years he journeyed to the arctic every summer to test instruments on board the Arctic Mars Analogue Svalbard Expedition (AMASE).

As an active member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, Steele works with a technique called high-resolution confocal Raman imaging. His work has led to exciting work in planetary science including the NASA Stardust sample return mission, the discovery of new forms of carbon in meteorites and Lunar rocks, and the discovery of a previously uncharacterized mechanisms of organic synthesis in the absence of living organisms within the Earth’s mantle and on Mars.

Steele also studies meteorites. Molecules containing large chains of carbon and hydrogen—the building blocks of life—have been the tantalizing targets of many Mars missions. Theories about the origin of the large chains of carbon and hydrogen  macromolecules in Martian meteorites are particularly interesting. They could come from contamination from Earth or other meteorites, chemical reactions on Mars, or remnants of ancient Martian life. Steele and team have been studying meteorites to determine the sources and processing of this carbon.

Using sophisticated techniques, his team showed that some of the carbon was from meteorites and not from contamination, but that the carbon was not biological in origin. They then looked at the carbon molecules in relation to other minerals to understand the chemical processing. They found that the carbon was created during volcanism on Mars, showing that the planet has undergone organic chemistry for most of its history.

Recently Steele’s team helped colleagues study a new class of Martian meteorite that likely originated from the Martian crust. The meteorite, NWA 7034, has an order of magnitude of more water than any other Martian meteorite and its texture is different. It has cemented fragments of basalt, which forms from rapidly cooled lava, with feldspar and pyroxene, most likely from volcanism. This composition is common for lunar samples but not for other Martian meteorites. Steele and his team studied organic carbon within the feldspar. Although the carbon is similar to other Martian meteorites, a different non-biological process was at work.

Steele received his B. Sc. in biochemistry and microbiology from the University of Central Lancashire and his Ph. D. from the Universtiy of Portsmouth. Before joining Carnegie he was a postdoctoral fellow at NASA Johnson Space Center and he was a  researcher at Oxford University, a lecturer at the University of Portsmouth and an assistant professor at  Montana State University. For more see here

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Vera Rubin at Lowell Observatory, courtesy of Carnegie Institution for Science.
July 23, 2021

A Statement From Carnegie President Eric Isaacs:

As we commemorate the extraordinary life of Vera Rubin—who forever altered how we understand the universe—on what would have been her 93rd birthday, I keep coming back to a legendary moment in her transformative career and what it can teach us about our present moment.

When she joined Carnegie, she had to battle for access to the 200-inch telescope at Palomar Observatory. She was told “your time on the observatory is limited, because we don’t have a women’s bathroom.”

So, as the story has been told, as I’ve heard it, she solved the problem pretty simply by cutting out a little

The scope of Earth and Planets Laboratory science courtesy of Katherine Cain.
July 7, 2021

Carnegie’s Earth and Planets Laboratory welcomes two new staff scientists whose expertise spans from terrestrial planet interiors to the atmospheres of distant worlds.

Anne Pommier arrived this month from U.C. San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, where she investigated the evolution and structure of planetary interiors, including our own Earth and its Moon, as well as Mars, Mercury, and the moon Ganymede. Peter Gao will join in September from U.C. Santa Cruz, where he studies the chemistry occurring in the atmospheres of Venus, Mars, Pluto, Saturn’s moon Titan, as well as exoplanets.

Pommier’s experimental petrology and mineral

June 29, 2021

Washington, DC—Carnegie’s Anat Shahar is the lead investigator on an interdisciplinary, multi-institution research team that this spring was awarded nearly $1.5 million from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to understand the chemical makeup of our galaxy’s most common planets with a goal of developing a framework for detecting chemical signatures of life on distant worlds.  

Since the first planet orbiting a Sun-like star beyond our Solar System was discovered in the mid-1990s, astronomers have revealed that the Milky Way is teeming with planets. To search for evidence of life on these thousands of other worlds, researchers are on the hunt for chemical markers

Carnegie mineralogist Robert Hazen
May 28, 2021

Washington, DC—Carnegie Mineralogist Robert Hazen—who advanced the concept that Earth’s geology was shaped by the rise and sustenance of life—will be honored with the 2022 International Mineralogical Association’s Medal for Excellence. The prize recognizes “outstanding scientific publication in the field of mineralogical sciences.”

The medal was created to honor a lifetime of achievement in and outstanding contributions to the fields of mineralogy, geochemistry, petrology, crystallography, and applied mineralogy.  Hazen will be its 11th recipient.

A Staff Scientist at Carnegie’s Earth and Planets Laboratory, Hazen

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Established in June of 2016 with a generous gift of $50,000 from Marilyn Fogel and Christopher Swarth, the Marilyn Fogel Endowed Fund for Internships will provide support for “very young budding scientists” who wish to “spend a summer getting their feet wet in research for the very first time.”  The income from this endowed fund will enable high school students and undergraduates to conduct mentored internships at Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory and Department of Terrestrial Magnetism in Washington, DC starting in the summer of 2017.

Marilyn Fogel’s thirty-three year career at Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory (1977-2013), followed

CALL FOR PROPOSALS

Following Andrew Carnegie’s founding encouragement of liberal discovery-driven research, the Carnegie Institution for Science offers its scientists a new resource for pursuing bold ideas.

Carnegie Science Venture grants are internal awards of up to $100,000 that are intended to foster entirely new directions of research by teams of scientists that ignore departmental boundaries. Up to six adventurous investigations may be funded each year. The period of the award is two

Andrew Steele joins the Rosetta team as a co-investigator working on the COSAC instrument aboard the Philae lander (Fred Goesmann Max Planck Institute - PI). On 12 November 2014 the Philae system will be deployed to land on the comet and begin operations. Before this, several analyses of the comet environment are scheduled from an approximate orbit of 10 km from the comet. The COSAC instrument is a Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer that will measure the abundance of volatile gases and organic carbon compounds in the coma and solid samples of the comet.

The Anglo-Australian Planet Search (AAPS) is a long-term program being carried out on the 3.9-meter Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT) to search for giant planets around more than 240 nearby Sun-like stars. The team, including Carnegie scientists,  uses the "Doppler wobble" technique to search for these otherwise invisible extra-solar planets, and achieve the highest long-term precision demonstrated by any Southern Hemisphere planet search.

Johanna Teske became the first new staff member to join Carnegie’s newly named Earth and Planets Laboratory (EPL) in Washington, D.C., on September 1, 2020. She has been a NASA Hubble Fellow at the Carnegie Observatories in Pasadena, CA, since 2018. From 2014 to 2017 she was the Carnegie Origins Postdoctoral Fellow—a joint position between Carnegie’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism (now part of EPL) and the Carnegie Observatories.

Teske is interested in the diversity in exoplanet compositions and the origins of that diversity. She uses observations to estimate exoplanet interior and atmospheric compositions, and the chemical environments of their formation

Phillip Cleves’ Ph.D. research was on determining the genetic changes that drive morphological evolution. He used the emerging model organism, the stickleback fish, to map genetic changes that control skeletal evolution. Using new genetic mapping and reverse genetic tools developed during his Ph.D., Cleves identified regulatory changes in a protein called bone morphogenetic protein 6 that were responsible for an evolved increase in tooth number in stickleback. This work illustrated how molecular changes can generate morphological novelty in vertebrates.

Cleves returned to his passion for coral research in his postdoctoral work in John Pringles’ lab at Stanford

Brittany Belin joined the Department of Embryology staff in August 2020. Her Ph.D. research involved developing new tools for in vivo imaging of actin in cell nuclei. Actin is a major structural element in eukaryotic cells—cells with a nucleus and organelles —forming contractile polymers that drive muscle contraction, the migration of immune cells to  infection sites, and the movement of signals from one part of a cell to another. Using the tools developed in her Ph.D., Belin discovered a new role for actin in aiding the repair of DNA breaks in human cells caused by carcinogens, UV light, and other mutagens.

Belin changed course for her postdoctoral work, in

Evolutionary geneticist Moises Exposito-Alonso joined the Department of Plant Biology as a staff associate in September 2019. He investigates whether and how plants will evolve to keep pace with climate change by conducting large-scale ecological and genome sequencing experiments. He also develops computational methods to derive fundamental principles of evolution, such as how fast natural populations acquire new mutations and how past climates shaped continental-scale biodiversity patterns. His goal is to use these first principles and computational approaches to forecast evolutionary outcomes of populations under climate change to anticipate potential future