XVII International School of Astrobiology 'Josep Comas i Solà': From astrochemistry to the origin of life

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Between 22 and 26 July, the XVII International School of Astrobiology 'Josep Comas i Sol' was held at the Palacio de la Magdalena de Santander. The Summer School, entitled 'From Astrochemistry to the Origin of Life', is organized by the Centro de Astrobiología (CAB, CSIC-INTA), the Menéndez Pelayo University (UIMP) and the NASA Astrobiology Institute (NAI) and has the participation in addition to European Space Agency (ESA).
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The school has been co-directed by Miguel Mas (director of the Centro de Astrobiología) and Rory Barnes (Professor of the Department of Astronomy in the Astrobiology Program at the University of Washington, USA) as a representative of the NAI, and the organization has run to Carlos Briones, researcher in the Department of Molecular Evolution of CAB. This year's edition has had a total of 40 students, of which 16 came from universities in the United States, 20 from Spain and 4 from other European countries.

The XVII edition of this School has focused on the fundamental aspects related to astrochemistry, prebiotic chemistry and the origin (or origins) of life. The transition between chemistry and biology, which occurred around 3.8 billion years ago, is a very relevant topic in which research in astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology and biology converges. Thanks to this interdisciplinary approach, we now know that from the organic compounds that were formed in the interstellar medium, their interaction with radiation and surfaces - provided by dust grains and increasingly sized planetesimals - allowed for a progressive increase in molecular complexity. Thus, as has been shown at the School, compartmentalized chemical systems that combined genetic material and metabolism could be formed. On our planet, the evolution of these protocells gave rise to LUCA, the common ancestor of all living beings, from which today's biodiversity derives.

This edition of the International School of Astrobiology has had four professors of international relevance: Izaskun Jiménez, astrochemistry of the Center for Astrobiology; Bradford Foley, geologist at Penn State University, USA; Dougal Ritson, prebiotic chemist at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, United Kingdom; and Karen Roger, biochemist and microbiologist at the Renssealer Polytechnic Institute, USA. In addition, Juan Pérez Mercader, founder and first director of the CAB and also founder of this School, has given a guest lecture in which he has shown the work he currently does with his research group at Harvard University on synthesis of chemical systems that, although unrelated to our planet's biochemistry, show the ability to self-replicate and compete for the resources of the medium.

In parallel with the school's teaching program, Miguel Mas (director of the CAB and researcher in the Department of Astrophysics) has given a scientific outreach talk entitled 'Astrobiology: from the formation of the Universe to the origin of life'. This conference, open to the public, has been integrated into the UIMP 'In context' cycle, and has been attended by around 100 people.

As a parallel activity within the School, an excursion has been made to the Flysch de Zumaia-Deba, an interesting geological environment of the western coast of Gipuzkoa (integrated in the geopark of the Basque Coast) whose rocky strata keep the record of nearly 60 million years. Among them is the so-called 'Cretaceous-Paleogene Limit' (also called 'K-T Limit'), which corresponds to the extinction of the late Cretaceous (65.5 million years ago). In it, as a result of the impact on our planet of a gigantic meteorite, much of the biodiversity of multicellular organisms, including dinosaurs or ammonites, disappeared. Through explanations provided by Asier Hilario (geologist and director of the Geopark), both students and teachers of the School have been able to know the geological history of this environment so relevant to science. In addition to walking along the cliffs, the whole geological formation has been appreciated thanks to a 45-minute boat ride along the coast.

In addition to the classes and this visit, during the five days that the School has lasted, all the students divided into four groups and advised by the teachers have prepared works related to the topics covered. The four papers have been exhibited by the students during the last day of the School and, after each exhibition, an interesting discussion has been established with the other students and the teachers. The end point of this XVII edition of the School of Astrobiology has been the ceremony of awarding diplomas to students. 

 

Fuente: Carlos Briones, miembro del Departamento de Evolución Molecular del CAB y organizador de la XVII International School Of Astrobiology

 

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