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Joining the Microscope and the Telescope in the Search for Life Beyond Earth

30 May 2018, 12:34 UTC
Joining the Microscope and the Telescope in the Search for Life Beyond Earth NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Francis Reddy

The world of biology is filled with labs where living creatures are cultured and studied, where the dynamics of life are explored and analyzed to learn about behavior, reproduction, structure, growth and so much more.

In the field of astrobiology, however, you don’t see much lab biology — especially when it comes to the search for life beyond Earth.  The field is now largely focused on understanding the conditions under which life could exist elsewhere, modeling what chemicals would be present in the atmosphere of an exoplanet with life, or how life might begin as an organized organism from a theoretical perspective.

Yes, astrobiology includes and learns from the study of extreme forms of life on Earth, from evolutionary biology, from the research into the origins of life.

But the actual bread and butter of biologists — working with lifeforms in a lab or in the environment — plays a back seat to modeling and simulations that rely on computers rather than actual life.

There are certainly exceptions, and one of the most interesting is the work of Mary “Niki” Parenteau at NASA’s Ames Research Center in the San Francisco Bay area.

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