Challenges2014, 5(2), 284-293; doi:10.3390/challe5020284 (registering DOI) - published 28 August 2014 Show/Hide Abstract
Abstract: An Aquatic Habitability Index is proposed, based on Quantitative Habitability Theory, and considering a very general model for life. It is a primary habitability index, measuring habitability for phytoplankton in the first place. The index is applied to some case studies, such as the habitability changes in Earth due to environmental perturbations caused by asteroid impacts.
Abstract: The past decade has seen an explosion of new technologies for assessment of biogenicity and syngeneity of carbonaceous material within sedimentary rocks. Advances have been made in techniques for analysis of in situ organic matter as well as for extracted bulk samples of soluble and insoluble (kerogen) organic fractions. The in situ techniques allow analysis of micrometer-to-sub-micrometer-scale organic residues within their host rocks and include Raman and fluorescence spectroscopy/imagery, confocal laser scanning microscopy, and forms of secondary ion/laser-based mass spectrometry, analytical transmission electron microscopy, and X-ray absorption microscopy/spectroscopy. Analyses can be made for chemical, molecular, and isotopic composition coupled with assessment of spatial relationships to surrounding minerals, veins, and fractures. The bulk analyses include improved methods for minimizing contamination and recognizing syngenetic constituents of soluble organic fractions as well as enhanced spectroscopic and pyrolytic techniques for unlocking syngenetic molecular signatures in kerogen. Together, these technologies provide vital tools for the study of some of the oldest and problematic carbonaceous residues and for advancing our understanding of the earliest stages of biological evolution on Earth and the search for evidence of life beyond Earth. We discuss each of these new technologies, emphasizing their advantages and disadvantages, applications, and likely future directions.
Abstract: Despite many efforts to deal with the various complex issues facing our societies, plans and problem solutions are seldom long lasting, because we, as individuals, and our leaders are most likely to fall into the trap of using traditional linear thinking. It is natural and easy, but does not usually deliver long-term solutions in the context of highly complex modern communities. There is an urgent need for innovative ways of thinking and a fresh approach to dealing with the unprecedented and complex challenges facing our world. It is essential for future leaders and citizens to be prepared for “interconnected” thinking to deal with complex problems in a systemic, integrated and collaborative fashion; working together to deal with issues holistically, rather than simplistically focusing on isolated features. An educational tool (Ecopolicy) is used as the main mechanism to achieve this aim. The Ecopolicy cybernetic simulation “game” is a challenging, but playful, method by which students are introduced to the idea of thinking in terms of relations, in feedback cycles, in networks and in systems. Participation in this stimulating simulation enhances the capacity of young people to change their way of thinking. This would be expected to prepare them to develop into leaders or citizens who can effectively deal with a complex and challenging future.
Abstract: If we find life on another world, it will be an extremely important discovery and we will have to take great care not to do anything that might endanger that life. If the life we find is sentient we will have moral obligations to that life. Whether it is sentient or not, we have a duty to ourselves to preserve it as a study object, and also because it would be commonly seen as valuable in its own right. In addition to this we would also have a duty to our fellow humans and other earthly life forms not to expose them to danger by advertently or inadvertently exposing them to potentially harmful space organisms. When space exploration turns into exploitation it will therefore be important to be able to show that a world that is up for exploitation is uninhabited before the exploitation starts. Showing that a world is uninhabited is, however, a different kind of task than showing that it is inhabited. The latter task can be accomplished through one positive finding but it is not clear how to go about the former task. In this paper I suggest that it is a gradual process asymptotically approaching certainty rather than a discovery in the traditional sense of the word. It has to be handled in two steps. The first is to connect degree of certainty with research setup. The second is to decide how certain we need to be. The first step is about the number, diversity and quality of observations. The second step is a decision we have to make based on the purpose of the investigation. The purpose and therefore the degree of certainty needed to establish that a world is uninhabited will be different for a world that is up for exploitation than for a world that is not. In the latter case it is only a matter of epistemic values. In the former case also ethical values have to be considered.
Abstract: The study of planetary environments of astrobiological interest has become a major challenge. Because of the obvious technical and economical limitations on in situ planetary exploration, laboratory simulations are one of the most feasible research options to make advances both in planetary science and in developing a consistent description of the origin of life. With this objective in mind, we applied vacuum technology to the design of versatile vacuum chambers devoted to the simulation of planetary atmospheres’ conditions. These vacuum chambers are able to simulate atmospheres and surface temperatures representative of the majority of planetary objects, and they are especially appropriate for studying the physical, chemical and biological changes induced in a particular sample by in situ irradiation or physical parameters in a controlled environment. Vacuum chambers are a promising potential tool in several scientific and technological fields, such as engineering, chemistry, geology and biology. They also offer the possibility of discriminating between the effects of individual physical parameters and selected combinations thereof. The implementation of our vacuum chambers in combination with analytical techniques was specifically developed to make feasible the in situ physico-chemical characterization of samples. Many wide-ranging applications in astrobiology are detailed herein to provide an understanding of the potential and flexibility of these experimental systems. Instruments and engineering technology for space applications could take advantage of our environment-simulation chambers for sensor calibration. Our systems also provide the opportunity to gain a greater understanding of the chemical reactivity of molecules on surfaces under different environments, thereby leading to a greater understanding of interface processes in prebiotic chemical reactions and facilitating studies of UV photostability and photochemistry on surfaces. Furthermore, the stability and presence of certain minerals on planetary surfaces and the potential habitability of microorganisms under various planetary environmental conditions can be studied using our apparatus. Therefore, these simulation chambers can address multiple different challenging and multidisciplinary astrobiological studies.
Abstract: Phosphorus (P) is an essential element for life. It occurs in living beings in the form of phosphate, which is ubiquitous in biochemistry, chiefly in the form of C-O-P (carbon, oxygen and phosphorus), C-P, or P-O-P linkages to form life. Within prebiotic chemistry, several key questions concerning phosphorus chemistry have developed: what were the most likely sources of P on the early Earth? How did it become incorporated into the biological world to form the P compounds that life employs today? Can meteorites be responsible for the delivery of P? What were the most likely solvents on the early Earth and out of those which are favorable for phosphorylation? Or, alternatively, were P compounds most likely produced in relatively dry environments? What were the most suitable temperature conditions for phosphorylation? A route to efficient formation of biological P compounds is still a question that challenges astrobiologists. This article discusses these important issues related to the origin of biological P compounds.