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RPI to study origins of life

RPI to study origins of life

Discovering how life developed on Earth may help in the discovery of life on other planets.
RPI to study origins of life
Linda McGown, far right, head of chemistry and chemical biology at RPI, talks Monday morning to, from left, U.S. Rep.-elect Paul Tonko, RPI student Junfeng Xiao and college President Shirley Ann Jackson about prebiotic routes to RNA on the early Earth and
Photographer: Marc Schultz

Discovering how life developed on Earth may help in the discovery of life on other planets.

Researchers have long speculated that the presence of simple amino acid compounds — the building blocks of life — among interstellar clouds may have spawned life in other corners of the universe. Now a collaboration of faculty at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in addition to academic partners at the University at Albany and Syracuse University will investigate how the conditions that created life on earth may have given rise to extraterrestrial organisms.

NASA has awarded RPI a five-year, $7.5 million grant, which will allow the college to further nearly a decade of research focusing on the origins of life. Based within RPI’s School of Science, the New York Center for Astrobiology will involve many of the same researchers who contributed to the New York Center for the Studies on the Origins of Life, a NASA-funded program that concluded in 2006.

“Our planet and its biosphere can no longer be considered in isolation,” said RPI President Shirley Jackson during a news conference at the college’s Center for Biotechnology. “We are a part of the universe that gave birth to it — and to us.”

RPI and the cooperating campuses were among 35 educational institutions that applied for the grant. About one in four are to participate in NASA’s Astrobiology Institute, a collaboration of universities based at the Ames Research Center in California.

“It’s the study of origin, evolution and distribution of life in the universe,” said Douglas Whittet, a professor of physics and leader of the new astrobiology center. “These are the most fundamental questions the human race has been asking.”

Speculation over the existence of extraterrestrial life has increased with the pace of scientific innovation and space exploration. Recent unmanned expeditions to the planet Mars have revealed an atmosphere with snow and a planetary surface that may have once held massive oceans.

Research at the new center will first focus on the early conditions existing on Earth that allowed biological life to flourish. Then it will question whether these conditions can be replicated elsewhere. By determining the path of life on our own planet, Whittet said science may soon be able to determine areas beyond earth’s atmosphere that may be conducive to life.

“We will understand how to get the answer even if we don’t have the answer,” Whittet said.

The new astrobiology center will offer both undergraduate and graduate opportunities for students to perform research and course work. Undergraduates will be able to minor in astrobiology or can focus solely on the field through the interdisciplinary science program.

The program will incorporate an equal emphasis on education, outreach and training, which is one the reasons RPI was awarded the funding. In addition to studying existing data, the new center will reach out to a new generation of scientists.

Among other endeavors, the astrobiology center envisions programming on WAMC Northeast Public Radio, the Greater Capital Region Teacher Center and the Alliance for Young Talent, a collaborative program between UAlbany and Albany High School. In addition, the center will sponsor an astrobiology summer camp for area middle school students.

“We must not only create new knowledge and share that knowledge, but inspire the next generation of students,” said John Delano, a UAlbany professor and the associate director of the center. “We need to engage and we need to inspire the next generation.”

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