Research Directions

Our research directions are investigating the origin of life, understanding how life survives in extreme environments, and developing ways to detect habitability and biological process in the solar system and beyond. See below for descriptions of our main research themes and ongoing projects.

Emergence of life

Understanding how life began on early Earth is key to determining if, and how, life could have started on other worlds. We study prebiotic chemistry in early Earth environments and investigate the effects of minerals on abiotic organic reactions leading toward metabolism.

Ongoing projects in this theme include:

  • Simulating hydrothermal chimney systems that may have driven prebiotic chemistry on early Earth and on ocean worlds e.g. Europa or Enceladus
  • Mineral-organic systems and the reaction networks of carboxylic acids and amino acids
  • Recapitulating metabolic pathways driven by protein cofactors in geological environments
life extreme environments

Investigating how life on Earth persists within extreme environments can help us understand how life, their chemical biomarkers, and biosignatures in the mineral record can be preserved and validated on other solar system bodies. We collect field samples and conduct laboratory geochemical and microbiological analysis.

Ongoing projects in this theme include:

  • Field studies of hypersaline environments that host life such as lake beds, caves, and deserts
  • Studying evaporite mineralogy and geobiological preservation within returned field samples, including microbiological analysis and sequencing
  • Sulfur isotope studies of hypersaline systems containing sulfate-reducing bacteria
Geochemistry habitability

Understanding life on planets is about more than detecting organics or cells; we must also understand the inorganic geochemical processes that make a planet habitable. We study the chemistry of elements crucial for life and origin of life including iron, sulfur, and phosphorus; as well as how redox energy is generated in planetary environments.

Ongoing projects in this theme include:

  • Electrochemical studies of mineral-driven iron and sulfur redox chemistry in seafloor systems on ocean worlds
  • Studying phosphorus redox chemistry on rocky and icy planets, including effects of iron and manganese minerals and geochemical conditions
  • Investigating the effect of organics and oxidants on phosphorus species adsorption and cycling in Mars and early Earth mineral systems
life detection

Detecting signs of life and habitability on other worlds requires techniques that assess the geochemical environment and differentiate between abiotic and biotic systems. We work to develop analytical techniques to study astrobiology of samples and in-situ field environments, and to simulate abiotic vs. biotic geochemical systems in the laboratory.

Ongoing projects in this theme include:

  • Building a geochemical framework for electrochemical signals of organics in Mars simulated soils and ocean world simulated ices
  • Investigating ocean world analog hydrothermal vents in the Pacific Ocean with a new astrobiology spectroscopic payload
  • Simulating microbiologically produced atmospheric signatures for life detection on exoplanets