MSU microbiologist to direct Rock-Powered Life grant

A team of faculty, staff and students from universities across the U.S. will begin research on Jan. 1 to better understand how life emerged and what sources of energy might have supported early life on earth. Eric Boyd, assistant professor in MSU’s department of Microbiology and Immunology, is the deputy director of Rock-Powered Life.The project is funded by NASA, who plans to use this information to refine the search for extraterrestrial life by identifying systems analogous to those on our own planet on other bodies in our solar system like Mars or Jupiter’s moon Europa, or planets even more distant.

Boyd stressed that the goal of the team is not specifically related to the origin of life, “There is a lot of controversy around the origin of life research. So we took a step back and said okay, we’re not going to touch origin of life, we’re going to talk about the first types of life. Once life originated, what was it doing?”

The project originally came together when Boyd spoke to Alexis Templeton, a geochemist and professor at the University of Colorado. Boyd and Templeton were interested in how their fields interacted, and their continued discussions lead to the formation of Rock-Powered Life. They wrote a proposal and presented it to NASA. Out of the 43 proposals submitted, Rock-Powered Life was one of the few accepted, and they received a $7 million grant to fund their research.

The research itself is focused on the interactions between water and minerals called ophiolites, exposed pieces of the Earth’s mantle which are rich in iron. Boyd explained that rock powered life is very common on Earth. These organisms are chemosynthetic and live independently from the sun’s energy. The team plans on pushing the frontier of understanding at what environment limits can life still exist. Reaching an understanding of what geochemical processes support life here on Earth will provide us with the means to understand the potential for life on other planets.

To gather data in the best way possible, the team is going to be doing research in campus labs and at three fields sites located around the world. Boyd explained that, “You can do one of two things when it comes to ecology research. You can study a system as it is in the environment, or you can bring some pieces of that system back to the lab and study it. There are benefits to both. What we are going to do in this project is both.”

The three field sites the team will visit are the California Coast Range Observatory, the nation of Oman, and the underwater Atlantis Massif, all locations of exposed ophiolites. The MSU group is focused on the physiology of the organisms being studied and will include both graduate and undergraduate students, who will all have an opportunity to do research in the lab and in the field. “This is a mission of the university and of the funding agencies to get these students involved in research — it’s not about me, it’s about training the next generation of scientists,” Boyd said.

Boyd added that the project is an important part of MSU retaining its relationship with NASA; the university had maintained a NASA Astrobiology Center from 2007-2012 and he feels that MSU has invested too much into NASA funded research to not continue to develop that relationship. “What’s neat about this project is that it provides a lot of opportunities for students to get involved in NASA funded science,” Boyd said.

He went on to say that he is excited to work with a team of enthusiastic students and to start interacting with the other team members in what he describes as a very collaborative project. “It’s going to be a heck of an opportunity for everyone that’s involved,” he said, “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”