Minerva Center: Origin of Life Under Extreme Planetary Conditions

Life emerged on Earth early in its planetary evolution. There are strong indications that during the critical transition from inanimate to living, Earth’s surface conditions were extreme, e.g. in temperature, radiation, salinity and pH, and subject to trailing bombardment by remaining planetesimals. Therefore, an attempt to understand life's emergence on Earth or elsewhere necessitates consideration of how proto-living entities could withstand extreme conditions and evolve life's last universal common ancestor. To this end, we characterize various planetary environments thought to be conducive to life, and attempt to infer the conditions under which life could have taken its first steps. Our team’s composition includes researchers in solar and extra-solar exploration, extreme biology and ecology of Earth and quantitative models for life’s emergence and evolution. We examine the characteristics of potential environments and the biological systems that may arise and inhabit them. The physical environment, availability of water, nutrients, and energy sources, are evaluated in the context of known terrestrial extremophile habitats and in the context of new hypotheses on the origin of life. We recognize the conditions under which life formed may be dramatically different from those to which life has later adapted. Of particular interest are potential niches of habitability and incipient life on Mars, sub-crustal oceans in icy satellites, and the rapidly expanding set of exoplanets with accumulating information relevant to their conditions.

We organize the work by focusing on the interaction of extreme environments with life in three realms: the physics of life addressing the thermal and geologic settings conducive to life, how these are defined, and where and how we might search for them. The (geo) chemistry of life, probing questions on the utilization of various chemical potentials, on the geochemical processes and settings required, and how these are in turn altered to record the presence of life. And in biology, focusing on how life might have originated, and how it evolves to adapt to specific extreme environments (e.g., the Dead Sea).

The Minerva Center is devoted to understanding life in extreme conditions on the Solar System planets and beyond. We study in concert the physical, geochemical, and biological aspects of the topic, and seek to develop a framework for addressing questions at the forefront of the search for life in the universe.