What is astrobiology?
How did life start here on Earth? Are there alternatives to life as we know it? How common is life in the universe? Gazing into the night sky and seeing stars twinkle, it is difficult not to wonder whether life is limited to this Blue Marble that we, along with plants, bacteria and so many other organisms, call home. Many of us have been faced with these existential questions at least once in our lifetimes, but the fact that they are also the subject of a scientific field called astrobiology is lesser known. Astrobiology is formally defined as “the study of the origins, evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe” (NASA Astrobiology Institute) and encompasses a wide range of research areas, including the search for habitable worlds in our Solar System and beyond, and research into the origin, early evolution, and diversity of life on Earth. It is a highly interdisciplinary field that demands an integrated understanding of geological, biological, chemical, and planetary phenomena. This in turn requires that a highly diverse group of scientists and engineers with various technical backgrounds and areas of expertise work together to solve the problems associated with reconstructing the nature and evolution of life on Earth and the potential to find it elsewhere. Astrobiology overlaps considerably with two related fields of study; Origin of Life and Artificial Life (together, they form OoLALA!). The former is concerned with ascertaining the physicochemical basis underlying the transition from non-living chemistry to biochemistry by studying how the components of life come together and become increasingly complex over time. The latter aims to build general frameworks to understand what makes living systems fundamentally different from non-living ones and then generate new physical or in silico living entities. These approaches will help us to develop an understanding of what to search for when looking up into the night sky.
In the search for other planets that may host life, astronomers have found over 3,900 planets orbiting other stars within our own Milky Way galaxy. A much smaller subset of these exoplanets orbit the habitable zone of their respective star, like Earth around the Sun, providing an increased chance for liquid water to accumulate (one of the many possible requirements for life!). Planetary scientists, geologists, geochemists, and many others are also working to understand the formation and evolution of terrestrial planets, and to reconstruct the conditions that might have been present on early Earth to identify which of those are general requirements for the emergence of life.
Astrobiology at UW-Madison
Here at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, there are a growing number of scientists at all levels tackling these challenging questions. Although many do not necessarily identify as astrobiologists (yet!), their work relates directly or indirectly to astrobiology themes and spans across many disparate fields, demonstrating that anyone, regardless of the field they are affiliated with, can become an astrobiologist. The goal of this website is to act as a hub for information on research and opportunities in astrobiology, not only here at UW-Madison but also at institutions and agencies throughout the world looking to resolve some of the deepest scientific mysteries known to humankind.
Interested in learning more about astrobiology? Thinking about pursuing astrobiology research as a student here at UW-Madison? We’ve compiled a list of useful links to help orient those interested in learning more. There are also a number of upcoming local astrobiology-themed events (check out the Spring 2019 OoLALA Research Showcase!). We also encourage students to navigate to the research profiles page for a comprehensive list of labs doing work that either directly aligns with astrobiology themes, seeking answers to questions that may be indirectly related to them, or using approaches that might readily apply to astrobiology research.