A Boost for Astrobiology in Germany

A new society dedicated to studying life on other worlds.

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Several European countries already have societies dedicated to the rapidly growing field of astrobiology. Now Germany is getting one, too. The German Astrobiology Society held its first meeting last week in Berlin to discuss administrative details for the new organization and talk science at the same time. The DAbG, as it’s called, will be the newest member of the European Astrobiology Network Association, EANA.

The meeting’s scientific program included discussions of organic compounds in space, the origin and evolution of life, the habitability of planets, and life detection. The first day’s keynote lecture, by Pascale Ehrenfreund, the new director of the German AeroSpace Center, was on the search for life in the universe.

The second day’s presentations included two topics I’ve written about in this column—the last common ancestor of life and the “cosmic zoo” hypothesis—and both subjects yielded new insights during the discussion. René Heller from the Max Planck Institute suggested that there may be many potentially habitable exomoons orbiting Jupiter-size planets outside our solar system. A large fraction of the gas giants discovered to date are located in the so-called habitable zone around their stars, and even though life would be impossible on the planets themselves, recent modeling studies suggest that it may have arisen on the moons, some of which could be as large as Mars.

In another session, Ned Budisa from the Technical University Berlin presented the latest findings from the new field of synthetic biology. While there is some natural diversity in the genetic code found in Earth’s biosphere, we are now able to modify it with amino acids not used by terrestrial life, and still end up with a functioning organism. The implication of this work is that extraterrestrial life may be even more diverse.

In a session focused on habitability, Kai Finster from the University of Aarhus in Denmark showed that silicate rocks such as quartz grains, which are known to bounce around the Martian surface and become eroded, develop chemically reactive properties through these collisions that are strongly detrimental to the survival of bacteria. As a result, large swaths of the uppermost surface of Mars might be sterile.

The meeting’s last day included an intriguing talk by Bernd Dachwald of the Technical University of Aachen, who introduced an instrument called IceMole, designed to drill/melt through ice on moons such as Enceladus to probe the oceans underneath. IceMole was successfully tested on a glacier at Blood Falls, Antarctica—a necessary first step toward developing instruments that could tackle much more challenging space missions.

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