Origins 701: Survey of Astrobiology

(open for Jan. 2013)

This one-term course involves a current survey of the major components of Astrobiology, consisting of topics in three overlapping areas of science: astrophysics and planetary science, geochemistry and geology, and molecular biology and biochemistry. This course is offered annually and introduces all new students in our collaborative program to the major questions in and results of Astrobiological research. This course also is open to other interested graduate students in the university.

Specific topics within these three key areas include:

  • Characterization of SuperEarths and terrestrial exoplanets, planetary habitability and habitable zones, formation of terrestrial planets, the search for life in the solar system, origin of water and biomolecules on planets;
  • Early evolution of Earth and Mars, analogue sites for extreme life, subsurface environments for life, mineral and isotopic record for evolution of life;
  • Biomolecules and early cells, extreme ecosystems, origins of life, RNA world, phylogenomics and evolution of life on Earth.

The course will integrate major results in each of these areas within a truly interdisciplinary framework. We will devote approximately one month to each of these topic areas.

Coursework and evaluation:

Students will enter the program with very different scientific backgrounds. This course will provide them with a common language and framework of important ideas and techniques. It will promote and build an interdisciplinary 'home' for the students, where they can discuss ideas and learn from peers in other home departments.

Each week, students will review a key research paper in the field. Each student will be asked to give a class presentation and lead a discussion about at least one of these papers. Students also will prepare a term research project that will be written up as a paper and presented. To ensure that students are able to cross boundaries and are able to explore basic concepts in sufficient depth, we will assign 2 or 3 problem sets.

The instructors will present material in lecture format but also drive and deepen class discussion at all points in the program. We will have at least 2 faculty members from the program act as the main organizers/lecturers (e.g., in 2012 – Ralph Pudritz and Jonathon Stone). We also will tap into the considerable breadth of the Origins Institute Astrobiology Faculty by inviting guest lecturers who will lead discussion and lectures on segments of the material on a weekly basis (i.e., 2 - 3 hours). In January -- April, 2012, these will be Greg Slater (geochemistry, isotopic analysis, early Earth), Paul Harrison (prebiotic chemistry), Paul Higgs (RNA world), and Gerry Wright (biochemistry).

Course Reference Text:

  • "Planetary Systems and the Origins of Life" 2007, R.E. Pudritz, P. Higgs, and Jonathon Stone (eds.), Cambridge University Press. This book consists of a series of review chapters that cover the basic set of topics given above. They were written by invited speakers to the OI (2005) conference on "Astrobiology and the Origins of Life".