Eric Boyd

Eric Boyd of MSU is deputy director of a new team investigating the origins and future of life.

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A new $7 million project to investigate the origins and future of life in the universe will involve a Montana State University researcher and several MSU students.

Eric Boyd of MSU is deputy director of the Rock-Powered Life team led by the University of Colorado and funded with a new five-year grant from NASA. Scientists from different disciplines and universities will work to understand how rocks and water interact at low temperatures to release energy capable of supporting microbial life.

Their findings will tell us about early life on Earth, as well as the habitability of Mars and icy moons like Europa, Boyd said.

Their fieldwork will take them to an observatory in Oman and the California Coast Range. It will also involve drilling deep into the North Atlantic Ocean to obtain samples. These environments were chosen because they have exposed iron-rich rocks that at one time were part of the Earth’s upper mantle, Boyd said.

“Rocky planets store enormous amounts of chemical energy that can power living systems when this energy is released through the interaction of rocks with water,” Boyd said.

He added that the chemical energy released when ultramafic minerals from the iron-rich rocks interact with water is thought to have fueled primitive forms of life.

“We suspect these environments will still harbor ancestors of these early, primitive forms of life,” Boyd said. “Identifying what primitive forms of life look like and what minerals are formed as a result of their activity will help inform our search for life outside of Earth.”

NASA has awarded five-year grants totaling almost $50 million to seven research teams nationwide to study the origins, evolution, distribution and future of life in the universe.

“With the Curiosity rover characterizing the potential habitability of Mars, the Kepler mission discovering new planets outside our solar system and Mars 2020 on the horizon, these research teams will provide the critical interdisciplinary expertise to help interpret data from these missions,” said Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA in Washington, D.C.

The $7 million awarded to the Rock-Powered Life team will be distributed across a network of university and government scientists, Boyd said. With the MSU share, Boyd and a graduate student will conduct fieldwork and laboratory research. Along with MSU undergraduates, they’ll study the processes that sustain microorganisms in these primitive Earth habitats.

Members of the larger team will analyze such things as the geochemistry and mineralogy of the rocks to identify the signatures of microbial processes, Boyd said.

The wider team includes geobiologists, geochemists, geo-microbiologists, microbial ecologists, geomagnetists and a philosopher. Other researchers are from Arizona State University, the Colorado School of Mines, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Michigan State University, the University of Rhode Island, the University of Utah and the NASA Ames Research Center.

Boyd became involved in the project after a workshop where he met Alexis Templeton, professor of geological sciences at the University of Colorado. Both wanted to better understand how early life was sustained when water interacted with minerals in rocks, so they decided to work together.

Boyd is a former fellow in the NASA postdoctoral program and a current NASA Early Career fellow. He is an assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

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