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4 The Roles of Other Federal Agencies with Respect to Astrobiology NASA has led in funding research directed toward its mission "to boldly go" into and to explore the frontier of space. For astrobiology, NASA has certainly been the leader in efforts to understand how life originates (including prebiotic chemistry), astrochemistry (including meteorite analysis), the early evolution of life on Earth, and biosignatures. Nevertheless, many other federal agencies are interested in the origin, evolution, and destiny of life in the universe, including the National Science Foundation (NSF), which does not have an explicit mission beyond the furthering of basic science and technology, and other "mission agencies." NATIONAL SCIENCE FOUNDATION The "basic science" efforts of the NASA program find a parallel in the basic science research of the NSF. It is impossible to review all of the contributions made by NSF-funded research that support the NASA mission. The NSF is frequently cited as a research agency that gets a large "bang for the buck" from the long-term scientific, technological, and economic impact of the research that it funds. The NSF funds many principal investigator- initiated projects that describe organic and inorganic chemical reactivity, for example, directly relevant to origins. Its funded research in geology and planetary science carries out analogous roles in these areas. The NSF is the principal federal funding source for general studies in biology that are not directly related to the nation's biomedi- cal research needs. In some cases, the NSF has initiated programs relevant to astrobiology themes; perhaps the best example was its Life in Extreme Environments (LExEn) program.) Work funded under this program directly relates to goals described in the Astrobiology Roadmap, including the nature of habitable environments. LExEn was distinguished in selecting teams from a wide variety of the disciplines underpinning astrobiology, and it funded a number of important research efforts that are complementary to and not duplicative of work being undertaken in the NAI. Unfortunately, after several successful rounds of funding, the NSF decided to terminate LExEn, for reasons that were never made clear to COEL during its multiple discussions with NSF personnel. While the NSF espouses a strong desire to collaborate with NASA, the different "personalities" of the two agencies often make long-term relationships difficult. NASA is very much a "mission-oriented" agency, often funding programs that take an exploratory approach to scientific problems which is less the case at the NSF. For example, evolutionary biology at the NSF is very much "hypothesis driven" and, thus, "discovery-based" propos- als fare more poorly than they do at NASA. 37
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38 LIFE IN THE UNIVERSE COEL understands that the NSF is constructing a new program whose scientific focus is the phylogenetic tree of life. This too follows interests of NASA, which has funded much of the basic research in this area. Carl Woese, for example, whose research created rationalized microbial taxonomy and underlies all current discussions of the history of life on Earth, was primarily funded by NASA (with some additional private funding) and not by the NSF (see Box 2.1 in Chapter 2~. At this juncture, it is unclear to what extent such a program will parallel or interface with NASA's Astrobiology program, but COEL urges NASA and the NSF to discuss ways to take advantage of complementary research funded by the two agencies in this area. The NSF can do things that NASA cannot do, including create initiatives in education through its Industry Graduate Research Traineeship (IGRT) program. For Earth-based research related to life in extreme terrestrial environments, the NSF owns much of the infrastructure, including ships and submersibles. This infrastructure, coupled with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) operational satellite systems, enables a large class of astrobiological research. NOAA already works closely with NASA. Recommendation In view of the diverse activities in basic science relevant to astrobiology that the National Science Foundation conducts, NASA should engage the NSF in detailed studies of the desirability of and the means by which the two agencies can create joint programs in astrobiology. DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY From the perspective of its own missions, the Department of Energy (DOE) addresses issues of interest to astrobiology. Fossil fuels do, of course, come from past life. The search for fossil fuels has generated a rich understanding of geology, geochemistry, and paleontology that contributes to much of NASA's Astrobiology research. More directly, the DOE recognized the importance of genome sequencing well before other mission agencies did (notably, the National Institutes of Health). DOE' s Joint Genomics Institute has the capacity to sequence some 25 million nucleotides of DNA per day.2 NASA astrobiologists contribute to the scientific direction of this laboratory, and the sequence data from it contribute to our understanding of the phylogenetic tree of life. The DOE also initiated, about a decade ago, a program to study life in the subsurface. While directed toward issues relating to nuclear waste disposal, this work has made scientific contributions in the research area of astrobiology. While greater reliance on the DOE' s sequencing program has the potential to increase the scientific output of NASA's Astrobiology program, some cases have been reported of delays in obtaining sequence data from the DOE on selected projects that may not have had high priority within the DOE. Increased reliance should not be construed to mean that NASA ought to discourage sequencing efforts in other types of laboratories, including those at universities and in private industry. Recommendation NASA should strengthen its connection with the Department of Energy to take advantage of the DOE's uniquely productive and broad gene-sequencing program. Creative ways should be developed to help astrobi- ologists obtain key genetic sequences, in order to complement those produced (and released) for other rationales, so as to further the goals of the Astrobiology program. This collaboration should be designed in such a way, however, as not to discourage or exclude the use of other capabilities, including those in private industry, to sequence organisms. NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH As the agency responsible for the enhancement of human health, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) generates an enormous volume of research relating to life in all forms, including microbial life (especially from microbes involved in infectious disease), viruses, model systems for developmental biology (relevant to events on
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THE ROLES OF OTHER FEDERAL AGENCIES WITH RESPECT TO ASTROBIOLOGY 39 Earth approximately 1 billion years ago) and "higher" life (especially mammalian biology). It is difficult to imagine a field of astrobiology without the contributions of NIH-funded research. In particular, the NIH has the resources to mount massive programs that are far beyond the budget of NASA's Astrobiology activities. For example, NIH's Structural Genomics program, which involves a major functional commitment, will advance our understanding of the evolution of proteins. NIH also supports major programs in evolutionary biology, including work on molecular evolution of prokaryotes and protists. At the same time, the NIH is regarded (with some justification) as being conservative in its selection of research topics to fund. NIH reviewing panels emphasize reductionist approaches over the historical approaches that NASA has advanced, and they discourage "discovery research." Asking "big questions" is not generally viewed as a way to strengthen an NIH proposal. Perhaps for these reasons, the NIH has overlooked many of the insights into biology that might be gained from historical, discovery-oriented, and nonreductionist approaches, and the nation's biomedical research mission has lagged as a result. For these reasons, the NIH will benefit from the research being done by NASA's Astrobiology program. The correlation between the timing of events in the paleontological, geological, and molecular/genomic records is providing insights into the role of individual proteins in modern life forms, including genes involved in disease. The understanding of the evolution of organisms is having an impact on our understanding of adaptation of infectious diseases to antibiotics, cancer to therapies, and organisms to environment. Recommendation NASA should engage the National Institutes of Health in a dialogue to explore the desirability and feasibility of the two agencies creating and funding specific collaborative programs in astrobiology. U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE The Ups. Department of Agriculture (USDA), from its mission perspective, also engages in research relevant to astrobiology. The genomes of plants, commercially important animals, and microbial and animal "pests" provide a wealth of information about the past. Within this information is captured the response of the ancestral organisms to historical changes in the physical and biological environment, including mass extinctions and major climate changes that fall within the purview of the Astrobiology Roadmap. The USDA does not, of course, view the data that it collects in this light. Here, interaction between the two agencies is likely to generate synergisms contemplated by neither. Recommendation In view of the potential value for the study of long-term climatic excursions recorded in the genomic record in plant and animal stock held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, NASA should engage the USDA in the development of a program to enable astrobiologists both to use and to interpret this record. NOTES AND REFERENCES 1. LExEn was initiated in 1997 and the final competition for funds was held in 2001. 2. More information is available online at and .