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Two UT Scientists Helping to Detect ‘Life As We Don’t Know It’

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AUSTIN, Texas — Two University of Texas at Austin faculty members have joined an interdisciplinary scientific team that is working with NASA to research new approaches to detecting extraterrestrial life. The UT Austin team will receive more than $722,000 over five years for the NASA project, which aims to develop methods to detect life on other worlds that might look nothing like life on Earth.

The work dovetails with a new $400,000 UT Austin research project supported by the National Science Foundation. That project has the potential to help in learning about previously unclassified complex chemicals on planets and moons outside the solar system, and whether they might be able to be made only by a lifeform.

Eric Anslyn, a professor of chemistry, and Andrew Ellington, a professor of molecular biosciences, are involved in both projects.

The pair are embarking on work with NASA’s Astrobiology Program as part of a $7 million project known as Laboratory for Agnostic Biosignatures (LAB), working to develop new approaches to detecting life in places such as Mars, Jupiter and Saturn’s icy moons. Investigators will lay the groundwork for characterizing potential biosignatures, or signs of life, that do not presuppose any particular molecular framework, as well as designing tools for their detection and strategies for interpretation.

“This project will help us perhaps answer the age-old question, ‘What is life?’ ” Ellington said. “And the newer question, ‘How will we know it when we see it on another planet?’ ”

LAB is a consortium that fosters collaborations among 15 planetary scientists, biologists, chemists, computer scientists, mathematicians and veteran instrument scientists, spanning 10 institutions around the world. It is one of the teams in NASA’s Network for Life Detection, a multi-institution research coordination network focused on developing technologies and techniques for life detection on other worlds.

“Our goal is to go beyond what we currently understand and devise ways to find forms of life we can scarcely imagine,” said principal investigator Sarah Stewart Johnson of Georgetown University.

Anslyn and Ellington will be exploring a branch of chemistry known as chemometrics. The project blends information science with chemical analysis to identify patterns unique to given materials. The team will use NextGeneration DNA sequencing to read out chemical reactions, harnessing a powerful technology that has already revolutionized biomedical research. The result will be high-resolution chemical “fingerprints” of living and nonliving materials, that the scientists will apply machine learning algorithms to in order to classify them.

Anslyn and Ellington also recently secured a $400,000 grant from the prestigious iSuperSeed2 program through the National Science Foundation. As researchers in UT Austin’s new Center for Dynamics and Control of Materials, part of the NSF’s network of Materials Research in Science and Engineering Centers, the scientists were invited to apply for the funding.

The NSF-funded project has synergies with the labs’ chemometrics work on the NASA project, but does not overlap. For example, although both projects involve analyzing chemical samples sent from labs across the country that are indicative of chemicals associated with lifeforms or not, the samples and the research goals differ, Anslyn said.

“The iSuperSeed2 project is oriented toward fingerprinting characteristics of various materials,” he said. “We’re looking at materials whose complexity could only be made by a lifeform.”

For instance, snails and lobsters are organisms that, in forming their shells, make complex materials. Characterizing complex materials could aid in identifying and classifying entirely new complex chemicals and their associated assemblies in planets and moons outside the solar system.