Astrobiology is an exciting and growing field of science. Its broad scope brings together the disciplines of Earth and planetary science, biology, chemistry, physics, and astronomy.
Understanding the environmental controls and geochemical processes that make a habitat suitable to microorganisms on Earth is a crucial first step to guiding astrobiological exploration of our solar system. At EGEL, our research focuses on investigating how microorganisms can leverage mineralogy to make otherwise hostile, arid and toxic environments habitable. We are studying environments that, at first glance, seem hostile compared to classical “best case scenario” habitats, e.g. freshwater lakes. In these harsh settings, microorganisms can use mineral behaviour to scavenge water and nutrients, to regulate pH, and to fuel their metabolisms. This approach allows us to widen the scope of localities where signs of extant or extinct life may be detected beyond Earth.
One of the most signficant challenges in the field of astrobiology, especially in relation to the search for life on Mars, is the ambiguity in identifying putative biosignatures. We are currently working to identify naturally occuring geochemical standards that could interact with a planet’s biosphere in a consistent and unambiguous manner. The existence of such standards would help to reduce the uncertainty of biomarker detection in extraterrestrial environments.