2020 Explorigins Colloquium

Colloquium Flyer

Dear Students, Staff, and Faculty,

On behalf of Georgia Tech Astrobiology and the ExplOrigins early career group, we invite you to join us for the 2020 Exploration and Origins Colloquium.
Please click HERE to register or submit a poster abstract.
The colloquium kicks off with a poster session on Monday January 27th, and continues with a day of plenary lectures, contributed talks, and a breakout networking session on Tuesday, January 28th. If you have any questions regarding the abstract submission process, please email the conference organizers at info.gt.astrob.colloq@gmail.com. Thank you for your consideration.


January 27th, 2020, MoSE 1st and 2nd Floor Atrium 
5:00 PM – 7:00 PM: Poster Session

January 28th, 2020, IBB Suddath Seminar Room
8:00 AM – 8:45 AM: Coffee and Poster Viewing
8:45 AM – 8:50 AM: Welcome from College of Sciences Dean Susan Lozier
8:50 AM – 9:00 AM: Exploration and Origins Colloquium Welcome
9:00 AM – 10:00 AM: Plenary 1
                                        Mariel Borowitz
Astrobiology: Science, Technology, Policy, and Politics
10:00 AM – 10:15 AM: Coffee Break
10:20 AM – 12:00 PM: Morning Session (Introduction: Tyler Roche)

      1. Kynan Hughson: Possible pingo analogs may populate Ceres
      2. Micah Schaible: In situ characterization of elemental compositions for small bodies throughout the Solar System
      3. Bradley Burcar: The impact of CO2 and cyanide in prebiotic environments on mineral formation and urea-based phosphorylation reactions
      4. Kelvin Smith: Mechanistic Investigation of Depsipeptides in the Early Earth Through Kinetic Monte Carlo Framework
      5. Petar Penev: Eukaryotic-like ribosomal RNA region in Lokiarchaeota

12:00 PM – 1:00 PM: Lunch (MoSE 1st and 2nd floor atrium)
1:00 PM – 2:00 PM: Plenary 2 —
                                     Christopher Carr: A Direct Search for Life As We Know It and Don’t Know It
2:00 PM – 3:00 PM: Afternoon Session 1 (Introduction: Taylor Plattner)

      1. Nadia Szeinbaum: Synthetic microbial consortia to explore cooperation on early Earth
      2. Anthony Burnetti:The dual origins of phototrophy and major evolutionary transitions.
      3. Devon Cole: Stability of atmospheric oxygen levels and ocean ventilation

3:00 – 3:15 PM: Coffee Break
3:15 – 5:00 PM: Afternoon Session 2 (Introduction: Chase Chivers)

      1. Philip SzotVertical Entry Robot for Navigating Europa (VERNE) Mission and System Design
      2. Loren Dean Williams: Polymers versus Metabolism
      3. Adriana Lozoya Colinas: DNA replication facilitated by a prebiotic solvent
      4. Aaron Pital: Semantic mining of chemical origins from non-chemistry disciplines

5:00-6:00: Networking breakout session

Plenary Speakers

Mariel Borowitz

Assistant Professor, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs,
Georgia Institute of Technology

Astrobiology: Science, Technology, Policy, and Politics

Mariel Borowitz is an Assistant Professor in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at Georgia Tech. Her research deals with international space policy issues, including international cooperation in Earth observing satellites and satellite data sharing policies. She also focuses on strategy and developments in space security and space situational awareness. Dr. Borowitz earned a PhD in Public Policy at the University of Maryland and a Masters degree in International Science and Technology Policy from the George Washington University. She has a Bachelor of Science degree in Aerospace Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Borowitz completed a detail as a policy analyst for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC from 2016 to 2018. Her book, “Open Space: The Global Effort for Open Access to Environmental Satellite Data,” was published by MIT Press in 2017.

Christopher E. Carr

Research Scientist, MIT
Research Fellow, MGH

A Direct Search for Life As We Know It and Don’t Know It

Christopher E. Carr is an engineer/scientist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. He serves as the Science PI or PI for several life detection instrument and/or astrobiology projects. He is broadly interested in searching for and expanding the presence of life beyond Earth while enabling a sustainable human future. He is currently a Research Scientist at MIT in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and a Research Fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital in the Department of Molecular Biology. He also serves as a Scott M. Johnson Fellow in the U.S. Japan Leadership Program. This summer he will join the Georgia Tech faculty as an Assistant Professor in the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, with a secondary appointment in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

2020 Exploration and Origins Colloquium:

This interdisciplinary colloquium will highlight space exploration science and origins research going on at the Georgia Institute of Technology, as well as neighboring universities. The goals of the colloquium are to forge relationships between diverse individuals, encourage collaboration and interdisciplinary understanding, and kick-start future fundable projects requiring the skills and expertise of multi-lab teams.

As previously, the colloquium will be roughly split into two sections: Exploration and Origins. While outlines of the two sections are provided below, the scope of abstracts considered will be broad. Past submissions have been from the departments of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Chemistry & Biochemistry, Biology, Physics, Mathematics, and multiple engineering departments.  We emphasize that all interested parties are welcome regardless of discipline or affiliation. 
Exploration: For the Exploration session, we are particularly interested in submissions that deal with any and all aspects of reaching beyond to explore the nature of diverse environments. Examples include space technology development, spacecraft mission design, planetary science modeling, biological or ecological fieldwork and direct observations of extrasolar systems; in short, exploring what is  ‘out there’, wherever ‘there’ is.
Origins: Submissions for the Origins session are encouraged to include some aspect of reaching back to understand the nature of the world today. Examples include cosmology and the origins of life itself, the emergence of multicellularity, the evolution  of  minerals, complex chemistry, atmospheres, and biological molecules or processes, and the formation of  planetary systems; basically, how did we get here?
Abstract Pages:

The pages linked here contain a selection of abstracts from our submitting attendees.

Presentations | Posters

Poster Guidelines:

The poster boards we will be using have dimensions 36″ by 42″. You may choose to set your poster up in a portrait or landscape orientation.

The organizing committee:

Aaron Pital (Graduate Student, Chemistry and Biochemistry)
Chase Chivers (Graduate Student, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences) 
Christina Buffo (Graduate Student, Chemistry and Biochemistry)
Tyler Roche (Graduate Student, Chemistry and Biochemistry)
Rebecca Guth-Metzler (Graduate Student, Chemistry and Biochemistry)
Taylor Plattner (Graduate Student, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences)
Micah Schaible (Postdoctoral Fellow, Chemistry and Biochemistry)

Funding and Support:

We are grateful for the funding and support provided by CSTAR, GT Conference Support, the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Frank Rosenzweig (NAI, CAN-7) 

2019 Explorigins Colloquium

Explorigins Colloquium


Thursday, March 28

“Ocean Worlds of the Outer Solar System”
Public Lecture and reception
Dr. Kevin Hand
Smithgall 117 Lecture Hall, 353 Ferst Drive NW, Atlanta, GA 30313, 6:30pm with reception to follow

Friday, March 29

  • 8:15 AM – 9:00 AM: Coffee and Poster Setup
  • 9:00 AM – 9:10 AM: Welcome notes

Topic: Planetary Science and Exploration

  • 9:10 AM – 10:10 AM: Plenary 1: Paul Steffes, Georgia Institute of Technology, “Radio Science: From Uncovering Jupiter’s Formation to Searching for Intelligent Life in Our Galaxy”
  • 10:10 AM – 10:30 AM: Zach Siebars, “Multi-functional Composites for Space Travel: Design Considerations Using Reduced Graphene Oxides as Additives in Polymers”
  • 10:30 AM – 10:50 AM: Adrian Ildefonso, “Silicon-Germanium Platforms: an Enabling Technology for Next-Generation Space Systems”
  • 10:50 AM – 11:00 AM: Coffee break
  • 11:00 AM – 11:20 AM: William Jun, “Design of an Interplanetary Radionavigation System for Surface Geolocation”
  • 11:20 AM – 11:40 AM: Justin Lawrence, “Developing Ocean World Exploration Strategies and Hardware Below Antarctic Ice Shelves”
  • 11:40 AM – 12:00 PM: Billy Quarles, “Habitability of Exoplanets Around Sunlike Stars”
  • 12:00 PM – 1:00 PM: Lunch, atrium of Krone Engineered Biosystems Building (EBB)

Topic: Life Origins and its Detection

  • 1:00 PM – 2:00 PM: Plenary 2: Sara Walker, Arizona State University
  • 2:00 PM – 2:20 PM: Aaron McKee, “Proto-oligopeptides at Mineral Interfaces: Interactions of Silica and an Expanded Prebiotic Peptide inventory”
  • 2:20 PM – 2:40 PM: Moran Frenkel-Pinter, “Chemical Mutualism of Prebiotic Mixtures of Cationic Depsipeptides and RNA”
  • 2:40 PM – 2:50 PM: Coffee break
  • 2:50 PM – 3:10 PM: Jefferey Skolnick, “Studies on the Origin of Protein Chirality, Biochemical Function, and Strcture”
  • 3:10 PM – 3:30 PM: David Fialho, “Plausible Prebiotic Formation and Supramolecular Assembly of Depsipeptide Nucleic Acid Oligomers”
  • 3:30 PM – 3:50 PM: Nadia Szeinbaum, “A Synthetic Microbial Consortium to Explore Cooperation on Early Earth”
  • 3:50 PM – 4:15 PM: Coffee break
  • 4:15 PM – 7:00 PM: Poster session and Colloquium reception

Building on the success of the 2018 Astrobiology Colloquium, Georgia Tech Astrobiology and ExplOrigins groups are proud to announce the 2019 Exploration and Origins Colloquium, which will take place on March 28-29, 2019. This is the 2nd annual networking event under the theme of exploring the universe and origins of life.

This year the colloquium is split in two sections: the first section is focused on space exploration technology and planetary science, and the second is oriented toward the chemistry and biology of the origins and the search for life. The event will consist of presentations and talks by early career scientists, i.e. graduate and undergraduate students, and post-doctoral fellows, working in the exciting fields of space and planetary science, engineering and astrobiology across Georgia Tech campus and the greater Atlanta. There will also be plenary lectures given by distinguished members of the global astrobiology community. The objective of this interdisciplinary colloquium is to forge connections across the kinds of research at Georgia Tech straddling the boundaries between technology development and hypothesis testing in the search for life’s beginnings and to explore collaborative ideas among participants. Hence, senior researchers and faculty are also highly encouraged to attend.

Plenary Speakers:

Kevin Hand, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Dr. Kevin Peter Hand is a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. His research focuses on the origin, evolution, and distribution of life in the solar system with an emphasis on Jupiter’s moon, Europa. His work involves both theoretical and laboratory research on the physics and chemistry of icy moons in the outer solar system. Hand is the Director of the Ocean Worlds Lab at JPL. He served as co-chair for NASA’s Europa Lander Science Definition team and he is the Project Scientist for the Pre-Phase-A Europa Lander mission. From 2011 to 2016 he served as Deputy Chief Scientist for Solar System Exploration at JPL. He served as a member of the National Academies Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences. His work has brought him to the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, the sea ice near the North Pole, the depths of the Earth’s oceans, and to the glaciers of Kilimanjaro. Dr. Hand was a scientist onboard James Cameron’s 2012 dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and he was part of a 2003 IMAX expedition to hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He has made nine dives to the bottom of the ocean. In 2011 he was selected as a National Geographic Explorer. Hand earned his PhD from Stanford University and bachelor’s degrees from Dartmouth College. He was born and raised in Manchester, Vermont.

Sara Walker, Arizona State University

Professor Walker is an astrobiologist and theoretical physicist at Arizona State University, the Deputy Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, and the Associate Director of the ASU-Santa Fe Institute Center for Biosocial Complex Systems. She is also Co-founder of the astrobiology-themed social website SAGANet.org, and a member of the Board of Directors of Blue Marble Space. Her work centers on in the origin of life and how to find life on other worlds. She is most interested in whether or not there are ‘laws of life’ – related to how information structures the physical world – that could universally describe life here on Earth and on other planets. She is active in public engagement in science, with appearances at the World Science Festival and on “Through the Wormhole” and NPR’s Science Friday

Paul Steffes Georgia Institute of Technology

Professor Steffes performed his doctoral research at Stanford University where he concentrated on microwave radio occultation experiments using the Voyager and Mariner spacecraft, with specific interest in microwave absorption in planetary atmospheres. Then, in 1982, he joined the faculty of Georgia Tech and is currently a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering. His research focuses on microwave and millimeter-wave remote sensing and radio astronomy and has been sponsored by NASA, the NSF, the SETI Institute and by industry. He has been involved with numerous NASA missions, including Pioneer-Venus, Magellan, the Advanced Communications Technology Satellite (ACTS), the High Resolution Microwave Survey (HRMS), and Juno (Jupiter Polar Orbiter).


Kevin Hand Public Lecture “Ocean Worlds of the Outer Solar System”: Smithgall 117 Lecture Hall (Student Services Building), 353 Ferst Drive NW, Atlanta, GA 30313

Keynote and oral presentations will be in the Children’s Health Care of Atlanta Seminar Room (EBB 1005), Krone Engineered Biosystems Building (EBB), 950 Atlantic Drive, NW, Atlanta. GA 30332.

The poster session and networking event will be in held the 1stand 2nd floor atria of the Molecular Science and Engineering Building (MoSE), 901 Atlantic Drive NW, Atlanta, GA 30318.

For all questions, please contact us

We are grateful for funding and support from The Georgia Tech Strategic Plan Action Group (SPAG), the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS), The NSF/NASA Center for Chemical Evolution (CCE), The School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering,  and the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry.

Continue reading “2019 Explorigins Colloquium”

AbGradCon 2018

Graduate Events

“AbGradCon (Astrobiology Graduate Conference) provides a unique setting for astrobiologically-inclined graduate students and early career researchers to come together to share their research, collaborate, and network. AbGradCon 2018 marks the 14th year of this conference–each time in a different place and organized by a different group of students, but always with the original charter as a guide.”

“These meetings have been wildly successful both when connected to AbSciCon, and as stand-alone conferences. Since it is organized and attended by only graduate students, post docs, and select undergraduates, AbGradCon is an ideal venue for the next generation of career astrobiologists to form bonds, share ideas, and discuss the issues that will shape the future of the field. Take a look at the AbGradCon 2017 conference website to see what’s happened in the past.”

Taken from official AbGradCon Site. 

Life in the Cosmos: Past, Present, and Future: A Celebration of Astrobiology at Georgia Tech

Public Events

On September 23, 2017 the Life in the Cosmos symposium was attended by over 100 people.

While the symposium is now behind us, you can view select presentations from the program here.

Among the oldest questions conceived by humans are: What is the origin of life, and does life exist on other worlds? Georgia Tech will host a day-long public Symposium on Astrobiology and Society in Fall 2017 with sessions dedicated respectively to Origin and Evolution of Life on Earth and The Search for Life Beyond our Home Planet. Each session will be rounded out by a half-hour discussion led by a panel of distinguished scientists and humanists. Anticipating discoveries that will alter our very concept of life, astrobiology pushes us to reflect upon the meaning of “creation”, our place in it, and how to accommodate scientifically plausible alternatives to longstanding hypotheses and myths. While astrobiology is often presented to the public as ‘other worldly’, and can easily carry utopian visions of possibility and hope, the force of astrobiology is first and foremost terrestrial.  The aura of new worlds reminds us that our cosmic ‘other worldly discoveries’ above all concern the planet on which we live. Analysis of data from vent plumes in our solar system or in Pacific Ocean trenches show the ways our solar system has become a laboratory for better understanding our own planet. The symposium and related interviews with participants will be recorded and provide substrate for a documentary that focuses on how astrobiology drives research across science and the humanities, and sparks open and imaginative discussion about Big Questions, including, What is life? What is the value of different life forms? What is humankind’s destiny?

September 23, 2017

Over 100 registered for this sold out program. 


Paul Steffes, Professor, School of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Georgia Tech
“How the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence has Evolved in the First Two Decades of the 21st Century”

Session A
Chair: Martha Grover, Professor, School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering

Nick Hud, Regents Professor, School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Georgia TechExploring the Origins of Life- From the Bottom Up”

Loren Williams, Professor, School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Georgia Tech
Exploring the Origins of Life- From the Top Down”

Eric Smith, External Professor, Santa Fe Institute 
Making Sense of Evolution in the Light of the Rest of Science”

Session B

Chair: Paul Sniegowski, Professor of Biology, University of Pennsylvania

William Ratcliff, Assistant Professor, School of Biological Sciences, Georgia Tech
Exploring the Origin of Multicellularity through Experimental Evolution”

Jennifer Glass, Assistant Professor, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Tech
Small but Mighty– How ‘Good’ Bacteria Transformed our Planet”

Shelley Copley, Professor, Department of Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, UC Boulder
“Closely Related Species Follow Different Evolutionary Trajectories”


Session C
Chair: Kennda Lynch, Postdoctoral Researcher, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Tech

James Wray, Assistant Professor, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Tech
Upcoming Astrobiological Opportunities at Mars”

Carol Paty, Associate Professor, School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Tech
Searching for Europa’s Hidden Ocean”

Amanda Stockton, Assistant Professor, School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Georgia Tech
High Impact Chemistry- How to Find Life on Other Planets”

Gongjie Li, Junior Fellow, Department of Astronomy, Harvard University
Searching for Habitable Exoplanets”

Religious and Scientific Perspectives on the Future of Life

Public Events

Religious and Scientific Perspectives on the Future of Life

Watch selections from the Symposium here. 

9:30 am – 5:30 pm
February 17, 2018
Candler School of Theology at Emory University,
1531 Dickey Drive, Atlanta, GA 30322

This full-day event was organized in partnership with the Leadership and Multifaith Program and is co-sponsored by Columbia Theological Seminary. The symposium aims to generate a multifaith discussion among scholars, clergy, community leaders, and students about science, spirituality, and the future of life on earth and elsewhere. Speakers will address this theme from diverse disciplinary perspectives, including cognitive science, religious studies, ecology, ecotheology, ethics, and astrobiology. The symposium will be held on February 17, 2018, at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, located at 1531 Dickey Drive, Atlanta, GA 30322. Lunch is included, and a short reception will follow the final session. This event is free and open to the public. Registration is required.

Program Details

Registration & Coffee (8:30 – 9:00 A.M.) 

Keynote Address (9:30 A.M. – 10:45 A.M.)
Speaker: Arri Eisen, “What Happens When You Mix Monks, Nuns, and Scientists? The Emory Tibet Science Initiative”

Session 1: Life of the Mind-Body-Spirit (10:45 A.M. -12:15 P.M.)

Lunch (12:15-1:30 P.M.)

Session 2: Life Here on Earth (1:30 – 3:00 P.M.)

Session 3: Life in the Cosmos & Where We Go From Here (3:30 – 5:30 P.M.)

Who Are We and Where Are We Going? The Human Search for Origins and Life Beyond Earth

Public Events

Dragon Con
September 3, 2017

11:30-2:30, Hilton 210-211

Speakers: Ken Knoespel, Loren Williams, Amanda Stockton, Britney Schmidt, Luju Ojha, Chris Reinhard, Lisa Yaszek

Where do we come from? Does life exist elsewhere in the universe? While the latter may seem like the stuff of 21st century science fiction, both questions have been integral to myriad cultures for millennia. Over the last decades however, research the life and physical sciences has brought these inquiries into the realm of science, and given rise to the field of astrobiology. But what do we know about our origins? And how do we search for life? The first part of this interactive symposium will introduce current scientific thought on the beginnings of our biochemistry, the evolution of our planet as a habitable system, and how we search for signs of life in space. The second half will explore the mutually influential roles science and science fiction, the implications of the discovery of water on Mars, and what life might look like on worlds far different than our own. Audience members are encouraged to come curious and ready with questions about the science and its place in our broader human context.

Why do we look up at the Heavens?

Public Events

Where: Georgia Tech TSRB Building Auditorium (Technology Square: 85 5th Street, NW @ Spring and 5th)

When: Thursday, April 12, 2018 at 7:00 pm

Why did we go to the Moon? Why does the Vatican support an astronomical observatory? These questions mask a deeper question: why do individuals choose to spend their lives in pursuit of pure knowledge? The motivation behind our choices, both as individuals and as a society, controls the sorts of science that gets done. It determines the kinds of answers that are found to be satisfying. And ultimately, it affects the way in which we think of ourselves.

Biography: Guy Consolmagno, SJ is a brother in the Roman Catholic Society of Jesus (The Jesuits), working since 1993 as an astronomer and meteorite specialist at the Specola Vaticana (Vatican Observatory), located in the Papal summer gardens outside Rome. Since 2014, he has been president of the Vatican Observatory Foundation, which supports the work of the Observatory and especially its 1.8 meter Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT) in Arizona. In September of 2015, he was named the Director of the Vatican Observatory by Pope Francis.
Consolmagno’s research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books, including: The Left Turn at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently, Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial? (with Fr. Paul Mueller, S.J.). He also has hosted space programs for BBC Radio 4, has been interviewed in numerous documentary films, and writes a monthly science column for the British Catholic Magazine, The Tablet.
A native of Detroit, MI, Consolmagno earned two degrees from MIT and a doctorate in planetary sciences from the University of Arizona, was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989. He has served as the chair of the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences (AAS/DPS) and on the planetary surfaces nomenclature committee of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). Asteroid “4597 Consolmagno” was named in recognition of his work. In 2014 he won the Carl Sagan Medal for Public Outreach by the AAS/DPS.

2018 Georgia Tech Astrobiology Colloquium


March 30th, 2018

Georgia Tech Astrobiology is proud to announce that the 2018 Astrobiology Colloquium will take place on March 30th, 2018. This is a new early career event for the Georgia Tech astrobiology community and will consist of presentations and talks by students (both graduate and undergraduate) and post-doctoral fellows working in astrobiology, space science, and engineering across the Georgia Tech campus and greater Atlanta. There will also be plenary lectures given by distinguished members of the global astrobiology community.Our theme, for what we hope is the inauguration of an annual event is: Exploring Life Origins and the Universe: A Networking Event. As such, in addition to our early career speakers, poster presentations, and our plenary lectures, there will be networking and innovation platform activities to forge connections and explore collaborative ideas among participants. Hence, senior researchers and faculty are highly encouraged to attend.

Registration for the 2018 Georgia Tech Astrobiology Colloquium is now closed as the event has reached capacity. However, an overflow space with a direct feed to the conference presentations is available in the Suddath Symposium Room located on the first floor of the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience Building (IBB).  This room will have a view-only feed from the main colloquium in EBB and is open to the entire campus community. Space is limited and first come-first served.

For colloquium updates and notifications please join our mailing list by clicking here

(Please Note: This is an announcement e-mail list only for updates about the colloquium.)

For all other questions, please contact us

Plenary Speakers

Organizing Committee

Faculty Advisors

Martha Grover

Glenn Lightsey

Jennifer Glass

Exploring Life Origins and the Universe: Program

March 30, 2018

  • 8:15-9:00: Coffee and Poster Setup
  • 9:00-9:10: Welcome by Paul M. Goldbart, Dean of Georgia Tech College of Sciences
  • 9:10-10:10: Plenary 1: Ada Yonath, Weizmann Institute, Israel
    What Was First, the Genetic Code or its Products? 
  • 10:10-10:30 Coffee Break and Posters 1
  • 10:30-10:45: Burcar, B.; Lago, J.; Pasek, M.; Menor-Salvan, C.; Hud, N.
    Phosphorylation in Urea-Rich Eutectic Solvents
  • 10:45-11:00: Taran, O.
    Iron Sulfide Minerals in Prebiotic Redox Chemistry
  • 11:00-11:15: McKee, A.
    A Possible Path to Prebiotic Peptides Involving Mineral Substrates and Hydroxy Acid-mediated Amide Bond Formation
  • 11:15-11:30: Fialho, D.; Clarke, K.; Moore, M.; Schuster, G.; Krishnamurthy, R.; Hud, N.
    Glycosylation of a Model Proto-RNA Nucleobase with non-Ribose Sugars: Implications for the Prebiotic Synthesis of Nucleosides
  • 11:30-11:45: Solano, M.; frenkel-Pinter, M.; Grover, M.; Hud, N
    Selection and Assembly of Prebiotically Plausible Protopeptides
  • 11:45-12:00: Bray, M.; Bowman, J; Petrov, A.; REddi, R.
    Iron: Primordial Cofactor for the Translation System
  • 12:00-1:15: Lunch, atrium of the Integrated Biosciences Building (IBB)
  • 1:15-2:15: Plenary 2: Niles Lehman, Portland State University
    Scrambling to Build the RNA World
  • 2:15-2:35: Coffee Break and Posters 2
  • 2:35-2:50: Márquez-Zacarías, P.; Ratcliff, W. C.
    How to Describe Exo-Evo? An Organismal Approach to Evolutionary Dynamics
  • 2:50- 3:05: Chen, K.; Rosenzweig, R. F.; Herron, M. D.
    Genetic Basis Underlying De Novo Origins of Multicellularity in Response to Predation
  • 3:05-3:20: Szeinbaum, N.; Henry, C.; Crowe, S. A.; Stewart, F. J.; DiChristina, T. J.; Reinhard, C. T.; Nunn, B. L.; Glass, J. B.
    Metaproteomics Reveals a Novel Betaproteobacterium with Roles in Metal and Nitrogen Cycling in the Deep Subsurface
  • 3:20-3:35: Krafft, A.; Colvin, T.; Homar, K.; Lynch, K. L.; Greene, R. Fitzsimmons, R.; Zaharescu, G. D.
    The Embedded Scientist Program 
  • 3:35-3:50: Lourenco, N. E.; Williams, W. L.; Coen, C. t.; Frounchi, M.; Cressler, J. D.
    MicroNimbus: a Spaceborne mm-Wave Temperature Profilometer for the Earth’s Atmosphere
  • 3:50-4:05: Duca, Z.; Cantrell, T.; Speller, N. C.; Stockton, A. M.
    Quantitative, Compositional Analysis of Trace Amino Acids in Europa: analogues with a modular μCE-LIF System
  • 4:05-4:55: Transport to Evening Venue
  • 4:55-5:45: Round Table Activities
  • 5:45-6:15 Summary and Wrapup
  • 6:00: Dinner, Ironmonger Brewing, Marietta, GA
  • 7:00: Plenary 3: Shawn Domagal-Goldman, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
    LUVOIR: An Astrobiology Mission to Targets Near and Far
  • 9:00: Transport back to Georgia Tech

2018 Seminars



A well-resolved pre-LUCA history of Class I aminoacyl-synthetase proteins reveals a critical link to the RNA world

Dr. Gregory Fournier, Cecil and Ida Green Assistant Professor of Geobiology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
2:00-3:00 | Molecular Science & Engineering 3201A
Friday, December 7, 2018

Translation is one of the most ancient and essential biological processes.  An important step in the process is aminoacylation, by which tRNA are loaded with the amino acid cognate to their anticodon specificity.  This process is carried out in all life by two unrelated groups of proteins, Class I and Class II aminoacyl-tRNA synthetases (aaRSs), each class containing protein families with specificity for 10 of the 20 canonical amino acids. As all aaRS families are present across all 3 Domains of life, it has been inferred that the lineage containing LUCA inherited a full “modern” collection of aaRS.  Therefore, these protein families must have diversified from a common ancestor pre-LUCA.  While clearly homologous, extensive structural and sequence divergence within each family makes alignment and phylogenetic reconstruction extremely difficult. Previous phylogenetic reconstructions of pre-LUCA aaRS divergences have therefore only used small highly conserved regions of the proteins associated with the catalytic aminoacylation domain, leading to poorly resolved histories due to an insufficient number of informative sites.  Here I present an improved alignment of Class I aaRS proteins, that recovers a much greater number of informative sites, and produces a fully resolved, robust phylogeny. Improved alignment techniques, including structure-based alignments, still consistently mis-align regions of these proteins.  Therefore, a careful, site-by-site manually curated alignment was performed, with reference to structural and functional studies in the literature. The resulting phylogeny is distinctly ladderized, permitting a rooting of protein family divergences based on parsimony models for insertion and deletions.  Ancestral sequence reconstruction of the root shows that all 20 amino acids were very likely already being incorporated at conserved sites within the ancestor, requiring a “modern” genetic code to predate the origin of cognate aaRS proteins.  This result is only possible if the protein-based aaRS system was predated by an earlier aminoacylation coding system, implicating such a process being part of the RNA world. Additionally, we show that the best fitting evolutionary models for these ancient protein divergences resemble those empirically determined from modern proteins, and that our observed phylogeny is unlikely biased by wrongly assuming that an earlier genetic code operated by the same general substitution frequencies.  This further supports that not only the amino acid alphabet, but the structure of the genetic code itself may have been similarly modern at this time.  Finally, we make the surprising observation that bacterial leucyl-tRNA synthetase underwent a major recombination event early in its history, inserting its proofreading domain to a different region of the protein. Misalignments resulting from this recombination may have further confounded previous attempts at reconstructing the history of this protein family.

Seminar Presented by The Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering:

Seeking and Supporting Life Beyond Earth

Christopher E. Carr, Ph.D., Research Scientist, MIT Research Fellow, MGH
3:30 PM | Guggenheim Building, Room 442
Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The search for life beyond Earth is a major focus of space exploration, both robotic and human. Informed by the molecular biology revolution, exploration of extreme environments, from Earth, to icy moons, and exoplanets, are dramatically transforming our view of life in the universe. We now know that Mars was once habitable and may support life today. We are developing the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes (SETG) to search for life on Mars ancestrally related to us, possibly shared by ancient impact events that transported a billion tons of rock between our worlds. Beyond Mars, we can now seriously consider missions to search for life at Enceladus, or Europa, although it will require transformational mission capabilities including a revolution in autonomy. More broadly, we now have the foundation to understand the limits of our own adaptation to space, and to augment those limits through innovative engineering, both biologically inspired, and biology-based. Building the tools required for a robotic and human future in space, on Mars, and beyond, we can simultaneously advance human health and sustainability on Earth.

Biography: Christopher E. Carr is a Research Scientist in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at MIT and a Research Fellow in the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Molecular Biology. After completing dual S.B. degrees in Aero/Astro and Electrical Engineering from MIT, Dr. Carr worked on the Mars Sample Return mission at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. As an NSF Graduate Research Fellow, Dr. Carr applied bioengineering principles to human adaptation to space, the bioenergetics of movement, and improved space-suit design. He currently serves as the Science PI for the SETG life detection instrument, also relevant to astronaut health, space biotechnology, and field research. He is broadly interested in searching for and expanding the presence of life beyond Earth.

Sustaining Life with Genes and Proteins Designed ‘From Scratch’

School of Biological Science Seminar
Dr. Michael Hecht | Princeton University
11:00-12:00| Engineered Biosystems Building 1005
Friday, November 16, 2018

Space Science & Innovation Symposium

October 18-19, Georgia Tech Global Learning Center

“The Georgia Department of Economic Development and Georgia Tech Center for Space Technology & Research are hosting a one-day symposium at the Georgia Tech Global Learning Center in Atlanta, GA.  The symposium is planning a combination of technical presentations, panel discussions and guest speakers to highlight recent innovations in space science and technology.”

Life in the Universe

Prof. Avid Loeb, Chair, Astronomy Department, Director, Institute for Theory and Computation, Founder Black Hole Initiative, Harvard University
March 12, 2018 3:00-4:00 Marcus Nanotechnology Building . 1116-1118

Avi has a wide range of research interest, including black holes, the first stars, and the search for extraterrestrial life. Avi is the chair of the Astronomy Department, founding director of the Black Hole Initiative, director of the Institute for Theory and Computation at Harvard university, and he also chairs the Advisory Committee for the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative.

Geochemical Controls on Protocell Self-Assembly in the Origins of LifeProf. Nita Sahai, Department of Polymer Science; Department of Geology; and Integrated Bioscience Program, University of Akron, Akron, OH
March 1, 2018  10:50-11:50 Ford ES&T L1205

The focus of our work is to determine the constraints placed by atmosphere-water-rock interactions on the environmental conditions for self-assembly of the molecular building blocks of the earliest like-like entities, “protocells.” We have addressed the problem that modern geochemical concentrations of total dissolved phosphate (PT) and Mg2+ are much lower than those are required for non-enzyamtic (prebiotic) RNA synthesis, while Mg2 and Ca2+ concentrations are too high for membrane stability, so how did life emerge on early Earth? We used a geochemical thermodynamic modeling approach, to show that a single, globally-occurring geological process of komatiite rock weathering and evaporation of the resulting solutions under specific partial pressures of atmospheric CO2 (PCO2) can quantitatively provide the PT, Mg2+ and Ca2+ concentrations required for nucleotide synthesis, RNA polymerization and protocell-membrane stability. Conversely, the biologically-required concentrations of PT, Mg2+ and Ca2+ place constraints on the PCO2 levels on early Earth compared to previous estimates ranging over five orders of magnitude. Using these environmental constraints on Mg2+ and Ca2+ concentrations, we examined the stability and evolution of simple protocell membranes from pure single chain amphiphile (SCA) compositions through mixed SCA-phospholipid (PL) to pure PL compositions found in modern cells. We showed that, rather than acting being toxic, the divalent cations promoted evolution of the membranes towards more modern compositions. We also found that RNA oligomer synthesis is possible even at much lower concentrations of Mg2+ than previously reported, well within the concentration range constrained by the atmosphere-water-rock interactions. Thus, we have used a geochemical modeling approach to create the components of a simple protocell under geochemically plausible conditions.