Finding life away from Earth will be tough task, says noted paleontologist

re for astrobiologists to turn their field into a self-sustaining endeavor because for so long science fiction has made the idea of life away from Earth a fanciful notion of all sorts of intelligent aliens, Buick said.

"It will take a lot of work to turn it from science fiction into science, and because it is so interdisciplinary it's going to require a rethinking of how science is done," he said.

The UW started the first graduate program in astrobiology four years ago with a National Science Foundation grant for graduate education and research. That later was supplemented by a major award from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Astrobiology Institute and money from the UW. The curriculum involves 11 degree programs including astronomy, microbiology, chemistry and oceanography and graduates receive degrees from one of those programs with an endorsement certificate in astrobiology. Graduates will have broad, interdisciplinary knowledge, the kind many of their professors are just starting to gain now.

Buick said fossil evidence of early life, whether from Earth or somewhere else, could be so tiny that it is at the limits of or beyond current capabilities in optic microscopic resolution. Those life forms might have existed without hard bodies, so fossil evidence would be exceedingly difficult to find and might consist only of poorly preserved organic polymers.

He noted there are three instances two in Greenland and one in Australia in which evidence for life on Earth was discovered that was as old or older than what he found. But in two of the cases the evidence is not clear-cut and there are ongoing scientific disputes about the meaning of the data. To resolve these arguments, he said, it is important for scientists to understand how signatures for biological life can be altered or erased from rocks, primarily by heat and pressure.

To sort out the terrestrial evidence and to apply it to the search for simp

Contact: Vince Stricherz
University of Washington

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