Highlights from the German Astrobiological Society Meeting
The first major face-to-face get-together in almost two years.
It felt good to be back.
After last year’s annual meeting of the German Astrobiological Society had to be canceled due to the COVID pandemic, the workshop was held in the town of Essen this week—live and (mostly) in-person. The presentations were on a high scientific level, and some, like the talk given by Panos Adam from the University of Duisburg-Essen, were outstanding.
Adam presented a view of evolutionary history based on a huge library of genetic data he has assembled. His focus was on the ancient metabolic pathway of methanogenesis, which, according to his analysis, evolved independently several times on Earth. I found it interesting that methanol, or wood alcohol—a compound I think may be an alternative to water as a solvent for life—may have played a pivotal role in some of these pathways.
Iva Vilovic from the Technical University Berlin presented her Ph.D. work testing theories of superhabitable exoplanets, or planets hypothesized to be more suitable for life than Earth. Vilovic is building a device to simulate the spectrum of K dwarf stars, which may be even more likely to host habitable planets than G dwarf stars like our Sun. She also has analyzed how the habitability of our own planet has changed over the course of its history. Periods when there was more oxygen in the atmosphere correlate with increased biological diversity and biomass production. But the opposite has been true during times of increased temperature (relevant, considering our current global warming).
The two keynote lectures were by Jesús Martínez-Frias from IGEO in Madrid and the Spanish Astrobiology Network, who spoke about current Mars missions and analog research in extreme environments on Earth, and Frances Westall from CNRS in Orléans, France, who talked about biosignatures and the search for extraterrestrial life.
There was much interest in a round table discussion about aligning space mission planning with astrobiological themes. The panel included several members from the German AeroSpace Center, which works closely with the European Space Agency (ESA). The representatives asked for more input in the form of proposals from the scientific community—although most activities in the immediate future seem to be limited to projects envisioned for the International Space Station, the Lunar Gateway, or perhaps the Moon, when the astrobiological community is generally more interested in Mars or the icy moons of the outer solar system.
Maybe the most exciting thing about this workshop was not the content, but the fact that it was a hybrid of in-person and virtual attendance. There were still a few COVID-related restrictions, but due to a 3G policy (vaccinated, recovered, or tested) attendees were once again free to mingle normally, for the most part. Most of the participants (about 80 percent) attended in person, and it was good to be with colleagues I hadn’t seen since the pandemic started. That was the real highlight, at least for me—joining up with old friends and colleagues for dinner, and even heading off to a bar afterwards for a beer or two. Simple pleasures, but we had gone far too long without them.