What does Australia’s outback teach us about astrobiology?

How did life originate on Earth? This is still an open question. It is furthermore one that relates to the field of astrobiology – knowing how life emerged here has implications for our understanding of how life might emerge elsewhere. On Earth, one of the hotspots for research about origins of life is the Australian Outback. We spoke to Martin Van Kranendonk, who is the Director of the Australian Centre for Astrobiology. He shared his thoughts on current astrobiology research, opportunities in the field, and the unique role Australia has to play in helping us understand the origins of life.  

What lessons does the Australian outback have for astrobiology efforts?

The Australian outback contains the best-preserved, most complete record of ancient life on Earth. This record documents how and where life gained a foothold on our nascent planet, and how it led to an oxygenated atmosphere and the rise of more complex (eukaryotic) life. Indeed, the rocks of Western Australia are used as the scientific background for understanding where to search for life on Mars. They have recently been visited by NASA and European Space Agency scientists to learn how to recognize and explore for life on Mars. This occurred as part of the Mars2020 (Perseverance) and ExoMars 2020 rover missions (see herefor more details). 

What are some active areas of research regarding origins of life on Earth?

For the past 40 years, research on the origins of life has focused on deep sea hydrothermal vents. This is because of the vents’ ability to generate chemical complexity and simple organic molecules through hot water-rock interactions. Now, however, there is a paradigm shift to thinking about origins of life on land in hot spring fields such as those found at Yellowstone in the United States, or at Rotorua in New Zealand. These sites have the same water-rock interactions, but they have greater complexity due to the fact that hot springs occur in fields of several tens to thousands of pools. Each pool has a unique chemistry, temperature, and pH. These pools furthermore can undergo wet-dry cycling, concentrate elements and organic molecule compounds, and mix their components through geyser splashing and other means. Indeed, there is no more complex geological site on Earth and so a lot of research is now focusing on origins of life on land.

What recommendations do you have for aspiring astrobiologists?

Astrobiology is an immense, complex, challenging, fun, awesome discipline that is providing new opportunities for major advances every day. In astrobiology, you get to explore your own planet, discover faraway worlds, search for life on Mars, plan the robotics required for the exploration of subterranean water-ice moons, and more! Astrobiology spans a range of disciplines and brings them together in large multi-national projects. There are so many opportunities across all sorts of fields – robotics, engineering, science, social, and legal. Get into it!