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UC Berkeley-led team to explore the elements needed to support Martian life

– Could life once have existed on planets other than Earth, perhaps on Mars? A team of researchers led by the University of California, Berkeley, has joined the quest to find the answer.

The NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) announced this week that UC Berkeley is one of 12 institutions that will receive funding to study the origin, evolution and future of life in the universe. The institute is awarding the UC Berkeley-led team $1.23 million for the first year of a five-year grant to study the biosphere of Mars, both ancient and recent.

As part of the exploration of what was, is and may be in the Martian world, the researchers will analyze the evolution of the planet's hydrosphere and surface topography, as well as reactions that may have contributed to an atmospheric shield that could have protected organisms from harmful ultraviolet radiation.

"We chose to focus on Mars because it is the most accessible site in our solar system that could have reasonably supported life," said the principal investigator, Jill Banfield, a UC Berkeley professor in the departments of Earth and Planetary Science and Environmental Science, Policy and Management.

Five of the 10 team members are researchers at UC Berkeley's Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. They are Banfield, Kristie Boering, Donald DePaolo, William Dietrich and Michael Manga.

As part of the project, the researchers will study regions on Earth that have conditions analogous to those on the surface of Mars, such as dry, cold desert environments in Oregon and Idaho.

"There are ecosystems among the basaltic rocks in these regions on Earth where microbial life is supported by inorganic chemicals rather than photosynthesis," said Banfield. "By understanding how certain microbes utilize iron and sulfur, common elements in Martian geology, we can obtain clues as to how life may have emerged and thrived on Mars."

The team includes an engineer who will study how robotics could be used to sample the Martian surface, including areas with evidence of sustained water flow that could have sustained life.

The NAI, founded in 1997, is a multidisciplinary research consortium that partners NASA with competitively selected major research organizations around the world. The institute's central offices are located at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field.