This weekend, leading researchers in the field of astrobiology will convene on UMSL’s campus to share research and analysis of recent findings. That begs the question: what in the world is astrobiology, anyway?
Funny you should ask. Astrobiology is a branch of biology which is concerned with the study of life on earth and in space. This weekend’s conference will focus on exactly how life originated on Earth and if that is being echoed elsewhere in the universe.
Erika Gibb, professor and chair of the department of physics and astronomy at UMSL, joined St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh to discuss the field of astrobiology and the possibility of life beyond Earth.
Big strides in recent years have been made in answering a question that has puzzled humans for centuries: does life exist outside of planet Earth?
“We’ve made some great strides detecting solid evidence for water on Mars and evidence for liquid water in the outer solar system,” Gibb said. “As far as we know, that is one of the fundamental things you need for life, liquid water. We’ve detected hundreds of exoplanets, planets around other stars in our galaxy, and we’re at the point where we’ve started to detect atmospheres and that they hold liquid water.
“We aren’t there yet, in terms of answering the question, but it really does look like the fundamental things you need are widespread in the universe. We’re pretty optimistic that there’s life somewhere else.”
Although Gibb said she’d personally like to believe there is life elsewhere in the universe, there’s a big caveat: “As a scientist, I don’t have the evidence to back that up. However, organic molecules are very widespread and I don’t think there are aliens flying around our galaxy, but I would be very surprised if there wasn’t at least microbial life on other planets.”
The discovery of liquid water elsewhere in the galaxy is a huge one. As Gibb explains, the ability to make complex molecules is a fundamental need in order to make some form of life. Carbon is a great atom as far as its ability to make such molecules, but a solvent needs to be included in the equation in order for molecules to move around. Water is one such solvent, but Gibb says some scientists believe other solvents could be substituted — things like liquid methane or ethane could work.
Gibb says that it is most likely that microbial life would be found first in the universe, before some sort of alien being. This follows the pattern of how life was created on Earth.
“We know that life here started very simple and it started pretty early after it could,” said Gibb. “In the early part of the solar system, there was a lot of material that was bombarding the planets. We were getting hit by asteroids that would wipe out all life on Earth if it hit today. The first evidence of life comes shortly after that bombardment subsided. It seems to have taken quite a while to get from single-celled organisms to multi-celled. There was three-plus billion years of just being microbial life. That’s part of the reason why I think that’s the most likely thing we’d find.”
Listen as Gibb explains how water was discovered on Mars, what else needs to be around for life to survive on other planets, the Fermi Paradox, women in STEM careers, the realities of how astrobiology compares to movies (we’re thinking The Martian and Interstellar) and more:
What: Astrobiology and Life Beyond Earth Conference
When: April 8 – 9 from 8:30 a.m. - 5:00 p.m.
Where: J.C. Penney Conference Center at the Univeristy of Missouri-St. Louis
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