This post is about an "astrobiology" conference several ELSI members recently attended, and I thought I would first give a little background for this term for those who may not be familiar with it.
What is "Astrobiology" exactly?
Astrobiology is simply a trans-disciplinary effort to understanding the emergence and manifestations of life in the universe. A European colleague once asked me whether the US created "astrobiology" as a way to conduct origin(s) of life (OoL) research in a way that would not upset the sentiments of devoutly religious Americans who generally dislike scientific approaches to OoL. Indeed, the fight of some people in the US to censor fundamental concepts of biology such as evolution from educational curricula is world famous, and it might seem as if conducting OoL research in the US is a dodgy venture. While it is true that fundamentalists do not hold the same degree of apprehensiveness about studying OoL elsewhere in the universe (only Earth seems to be out-of-bounds), I don't believe astrobiology was born as a deliberate effort to diffuse fundamentalist criticism. Rather, astrobiology is a natural extension of the OoL question, by realizing that the same potential exists for the emergence of life in other Earth-like environments in the universe as on Earth, combined with the vast number of such environments estimated to exist in the universe, implies that life should be a ubiquitous feature of the universe. Thus astrobiology represents a Galilean shift in perspective, taking the question of life and giving it to the universe rather than considering it to be the sole domain of the particular stone we inhabit. In any case, astrobiologists (including those in the US) do tend to spend a lot of time studying life on Earth.
Where does the term "astrobiology" come from?
I don't really know. The earliest reference to astrobiology I've heard is a 1960s science-fiction television show from the US that was called "Star Trek," about a brave crew from the "Federation of Planets" who explored the universe in a space ship called the "Enterprise." In one of the early episodes the womanizing captain of the Enterprise has a romantic encounter with a woman who calls herself an "astrobiologist." They and the crew battled against a silicon-based life form that plagued a Federation outpost. In any case, NASA's official efforts to understand OoL in the universe date back to at least 1959, and probably some activities prior to that. These earlier programs were called "exobiolology" and the term "astrobiology" only came into broader usage some time later.
Every 2-3 years the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Astrobiology Institute (NAI) hosts the "Astrobiology Science Conference" in the United States (AbSciCon). The meeting is well-attended by scientists working on NASA-funded astrobiology programs, and is a great opportunity for ELSI members to connect with our American colleagues, establish new collaborations, recruit new ELSI members, and expand our global reach by plugging into NAI's already impressive international network.
AbSciCon 2015 in Chicago was my very first time to attend this meeting. While I attended universities in the US that were heavily invested in the field of astrobiology (Arizona State and UCLA), and I had a great deal of exposure to astrobiology as a student, until my arrival at ELSI I did not have much opportunity to attend this kind of conference. Now I am very happy that I did so, and look forward to attending AbSciCon again in the future.
Including myself, 7 ELSI members attended AbSciCon this year, including Eric Smith, Jim Cleaves, Joe Kirschvink, Ken Takai, Nicholas Guttenberg, and Yuka Fujii. All of them had a great experience at the meeting, and we were all struck by the high degree of overlap between ELSI's scientific scope and the diverse spread that is astrobiology. The scientific scope was rich, and matched almost perfectly with ELSI's diverse range of science.
From ELSI PI Ken Takai:
In AbSciCon2015, I am personally very interested in the topics related with 'Biosignatures' and 'Habitability'. Of course, there are many other interesting topics such as 'Mars exploration' and 'Extraterrestrial Oceans'. However, as at most 5 sessions run in parallel, it is very difficult for one person to chase all the conference topics.
Anyway, I am very surprised that many excellent astrobiologists are now recognizing 'Biosignatures' as 'context'. The trend has just kept up to me because I have been insisting on it before (I am kidding). Yes, life is a context of complex physical and chemical processes between outer and intra-compartment systems. Thus, signatures of life must be 'context'. Only several key signatures cannot point to existence of life and represent living phenomena. This seems to be very rational but specialists have long restrained themselves to their own arms and fields that may give true 'Biosignatures'. Now, 'context' is being focused on. This means that multidiscipline is the only way to find true 'Biosignatures'.
Reflections from ELSI Research Scientist Nicholas Guttenberg:
The AbSciCon meeting had a number of people talking about prebiotic chemistry and chemical evolution. One thing I noticed is that there seems to be a significant degree of convergence on a particular idea: wet/dry cycles that form and break polymers, leading to complex polymerization, selection, and eventually chemical evolution. Nick Hud talked about how general the mechanism is, and about the possibility of evolution happening to the component monomers to smoothly adjust the properties of the polymer system; Sara Walker was doing simulations of this kind of thing and found selection and amplification of functional properties; Lee Cronin had set up his chemical directed evolution experiments to find mixtures that would form very long polypeptide; and Bruce Damer along with Dave Deamer were doing wet/dry cycles on vesicles and showing that it could enhance the concentration of polymers based on their chemical function, selecting out the ones with the ability to stabilize vesicles during the dry phase.
So it seems like as a whole, people are moving towards this idea of exploring how specific kinds of cycles can drive selectivity and specificity in chemical systems. There also seems to be a growing appreciation of environmental feedbacks as an active component of the system, rather than just fixed environmental parameters.
Growing the NAI-ELSI Connection:
In order to forge a better connection between astrobiology in Japan and NAI, ELSI PIs Eric Smith, Joe Kirschvink, and I had an opportunity to attend the NAI Executive Council meeting, along with our colleagues Kensei Kobayashi (Yokohama National University) and Motohide Tamura (Tokyo University). In Japan we have been working to build the new Japan Astrobiology Consortium (JABC), a partnership between ELSI, the National Institute for Natural Sciences (NINS), and other networks. We introduced our organization and solicited the council to become an international partner. We had the great pleasure of listening to other partners from networks around the world, this was a fantastic learning opportunity for us to better develop a similar network in Japan.
Another task is to increase ELSI participation at AbSciCon in the future. A common sentiment expressed by all ELSI members in attendance was that many more ELSI members should attend AbSciCon. ELSI PI Ken Takai said "AbSciCon covers all the ELSI topics. I think more ELSI guys should join to AbSciCon." I agree wholeheartedly. However, there is an issue we need to work hard to overcome in order to help more ELSI members attend this conference: The high cost of attendance vs. the low rate of travel reimbursement given to ELSI members. In fact, the reimbursement rate at Tokyo Tech has not been updated for several years, and in this period of time the Yen has fallen by ~40% relative to the US dollar. Making matters worse, even though the official inflation rate in the US is reported to be small, the actual prices paid for travel, hotels, food, etc., in the US has skyrocketed in recent years, particularly in cities like Chicago with numerous popular conference venues. I sincerely hope that we can resolve this issue soon, long before the next AbSciCon (which will possibly be held in 2017).
ELSI booth at AbSciCon 2015