2023 – 2024

The EAI ACADEMY is an international educational program organized and disseminated by the Centro de Astrobiología (CAB), CSIC-INTA, Madrid, with the support of the European Astrobiology Institute (EAI). It provides a framework to meet online with the international astrobiology community and gain interdisciplinary knowledge through a series of seminars given by experts in these fields. The Academy’s audience connects from over 32 countries and all continents, with an average participation of 120 attendees per seminar. Previous editions are accessible through the CAB youtube channel(2021-2022, 2022-2023).

The EAI Academy program for the 2023-2024 academic year will start this October 4. The seminars are offered free of charge and will be streamed online via zoom every two weeks on Wednesdays from 15:00 to 16:00 CET (Madrid time). The talks will be given by world-renowned experts, who will answer questions posed by the audience after their presentation. All seminars will be recorded for future availability on the CAB youtube channel.

At the end of the academic year, CAB awards a certificate of participation to those who attend a minimum of 10 seminars. In order for us to track attendance, you will need to enter your name and affiliation in the seminar chat when you enter the room (Zoom).

Registration is now closed.

LIST OF SPEAKERS AND TOPICS

Dr. Helmut Lammer
Space Research Institute (IWF), Austrian Academy of Sciences, Graz
Austria

Evolution of planetary environments

January 10th, 2024

Early Phase of habitable planets

The talk focuses on the evolution of stellar and geophysical conditions that allow complex multi-cellular life forms to originate on terrestrial planets with atmospheres that are dominated by N2/O2. It is shown that the earliest accretion processes set the initial parameter stages for terrestrial planets to end up as Earth-like Habitats. The most relevant factors and time scales such as the accretion time of terrestrial planets and the lifetime of the protoplanetary disk will be discussed. Competition between these time scales will determine if an accreting terrestrial planet may end up inside the habitable zone as a sub-Neptune with a primordial atmosphere or not. Other relevant factors like the availability of the initial amount of heat-producing radioactive elements such as 40K, 238U, and 232Th on early planets and their role in shaping habitable environments, including a planet thermal evolution and hence the right tectonic regime that is necessary for life as we know it will also be addressed. Since these elements can be lost during planet formation, one can expect that many terrestrial planets inside the habitable zone will have internal heat budgets and tectonic regimes that are different than those of Earth. Finally, a newly derived formula that can be used for the estimation of the number of potential Earth-like Habitats in the Milky Way that can be constrained by the detection of main atmospheric species, obtained from future space and large ground-based telescopes, will also be discussed.

Link to the video

Dr. Manuel Scherf
Space Research Institute (IWF), Austrian Academy of Sciences, Graz
Austria

Evolution of planetary environments

January 24th, 2024

Dr. Frances Westall
Centre de biophysique moléculaire (CBM), CNRS, Orleans
France

Traces of early life on Earth

March 6th, 2024

Why early life is so important to the search for extraterrestrial life

There are many missions (and future missions) searching for extraterrestrial life in the Solar System and on exoplanets. The stakes are high with enormous consequences ensuing bona fide detections – for the researchers involved, for the decision makers who fund research and/or space missions, as well as for the general public. While exoplanet research is particularly geared to traces of evolved life, ranging from organisms having developed some form of photosynthesis to SETI and technosignatures, Solar System studies are more “modest” and realistic in the sense that we know we are looking for life resembling (but not identical to) terrestrial anaerobic microorganisms.

Evolved life on Earth (from oxygenic phototrophs onward) co-evolved with a geological and environmentally changing world that has no counterparts in the Solar System (unless some form of geological evolution took place on Venus). The early Earth, on the other hand, was relatively simple geologically speaking: mostly ocean planet, paucity of emergent landmasses, mostly CO2 atmosphere, environment dominated by volcanism and hydrothermal activity etc. When life emerged on Earth more than 4 billion years ago (Ga), and for about a billion years, it was totally controlled by geological processes. The appearance of anoxygenic photosynthesis and the gradual instauration of global plate tectonics leading to the formation of continental landmasses paved the way for the greater influence of life on the environment and geological processes.

However, apart from possibly Venus, plate tectonics did not occur on other bodies in the Solar System and technologies are not yet at a stage to detect it on exoplanets. What was life like on the very early Earth before the emergence of photosynthesis?
I will show our research of nearly 30 years into some of the oldest traces of life, concentrating specifically on chemotrophs, organisms that obtain their energy from oxidation of inorganic substances (chemoautolithotrophs) or from oxidation of pre-existing organic matter (chemoorganotrophs), as examples of the kinds of primitive life forms that might inhabit or have inhabited planets or icy satellites in the Solar System. Chemolithoautotrophs are believed to have been the first forms of life on Earth and microorganisms using similar kinds of metabolisms are likely to be the most common in the Universe – they do not leave detectable atmospheric traces.

In particular, I will underline the challenges of studying their fossilised remains to prove both biogenicity and syngenicity, even here on Earth where we have access to unlimited and highly sophisticated equipment. As a fore taste, our recent PhD student Laura Clodoré has just published a paper detailing the painstaking steps necessary for such studies: Clodoré, L. et al., 2024. Multi-Technique Characterization of 3.45 Ga Microfossils on Earth: A Key Approach to Detect Possible Traces of Life in Returned Samples from Mars. Astrobiology 24. Published Online: 20 Feb 2024, https://doi.org/10.1089/ast.2023.0089.

Link to the Video

Dr. Marta Ruiz Bermejo
Centro de Astrobiología (CAB), INTA-CSIC, Madrid
Spain

Prebiotic chemistry and the carbon cycle

April 17th, 2024

HCN chemistry: Feedback between Prebiotic Chemistry and Materials Science

In this talk, a general overview of the hydrogen cyanide (HCN) chemistry will be showed, from the first HCN oligomerization observed by Proust in 1806 to the new proposed insights in prebiotic chemistry and the most recent advances in materials science, and the feedback between both fields.

The hydrogen cyanide (HCN) is a ubiquitous molecule in the Universe. It has been detected in a wide range of environments with astrobiological interest, such as interstellar clouds, star-forming regions, planetary nebulae, interplanetary dust, comets, meteorites and atmospheres of satellites and planets such as Titan and Pluto and very recently in the plumes of Enceladus. In a terrestrial context, HCN can be identified in volcanic eruptions and hydrothermal vents and may have been relatively abundant in the atmosphere of the early Earth.

Currently, HCN is considered a key compound in novel proposals regarding scenarios and hypotheses related to the first stages of increasing molecular complexity that led to the rise of life. It has been suggested that the HCN has significant implications for the prebiotic generation of several important bioorganics and related and intermediate compounds, such as amino acids, canonical and non-canonical nucleobases, and other N-heterocycles, as well as carboxylic acids and sugar derivatives.

On the other hand, the HCN can spontaneously polymerize in the presence of bases, such as NH3 or Et3N, and free radicals from ionizing radiation, and they occur over a wide range of conditions. This singular polymeric system can also be produced from its soluble salts (NaCN or KCN), its trimer and tetramer, namely, aminomalononitrile and diaminomaleonitrile, respectively, or from its hydrolysis products, such as formamide. Furthermore, it has been suggested that HCN polymers may be the major components of the dark matter present on the surface of meteorites and comets. In addition, beyond the interest in HCN polymers in the fields of astrochemistry, prebiotic chemistry and astrobiology, these fascinating substances are inspiring new materials and present interesting properties that can lead to promising applications.

Link to video

Dr. Juan Pérez-Mercader
Senior Research Fellow, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. USA & Profesor de Investigación in Spain's National Research Council (CSIC)
Spain

The evolutionary tree of life

April 24th, 2024

Making (generalized) life in a test tube: experiments and implications

Living systems on Earth are open complex chemical systems. Using biochemistry, they all (i) process information, (ii) metabolize, (iii) self-reproduce and (iv) evolve. Starting with an aqueous homogeneous blend of biochemistry-free chemicals, and using biochemistry-free Polymerization Induced Self-Assembly (PISA), we demonstrate the autonomous, chemistry-controlled 1-pot synthesis and boot-up of micron-scale vesicles (“protocells”) exhibiting all the above properties. Driven by carbon chemistry and the dynamics of a growing vesicle, the time evolution of these protocells parallels the lifecycle of natural extant biology. They autonomously boot-up, display periodic growth and collapse during several consecutive cycles, self-reproduce (driven by molecular degradation in their lumen), provide heritable variation and show chemotaxis. They also show a “struggle for life” and “competitive exclusion”, thus offering a steppingstone towards Darwinian evolution. These results are a first laboratory realization of synthetic, minimal, autonomous, non-biochemical life, or “Bernal’s generalized life”. They offer insights into the laboratory creation of artificial life, of new functional materials and of multiple pathways for the prebiotic formation and evolution of precursor protocells en route to the first biochemical living systems on Earth. In the realms of Astrobiology and Exoplanets these results greatly expand our horizons for the potential presence of life in the Universe.

Link to Video

Dr. Laura Sanchez
Centro de Astrobiología (CAB), INTA-CSIC, Madrid
Spain

Traces of early life on Earth

May 8th, 2024

Lipid biomarkers, those fatty guys key for the search of (early and extraterrestrial) life

Lipids are structural components of cell membranes in all type of organisms on Earth. They can represent up to 7% of the cell dry weight in microorganisms, and are involved in a number of functions in the cell (energy storage, transport of nutrients into the cell, stabilization of proteins, or maintenance of the protonmotive force), where the barrier function is central. Because of their ubiquity on life (as we know it) and their relative resistance to degradation compared to nucleic acids or proteins, lipids are considered unique biomarkers for life detection on Earth. They display effective membrane-forming properties even under geochemically hostile conditions, promising lipids a universal biomarker character suitable for life detection beyond Earth, where a putative biological membrane would also be required to separate life from the outside environment. Cell membrane-derived compounds retain diagnostic information about their origin and biosynthetic pathway in their recalcitrant hydrocarbon skeletons for billions of years, which is crucial in the field of astrobiology given the time span that the geological ages of planetary bodies encompass. In addition, lipid configurations adapt to the changing environment modifying their structural composition (e.g. introducing doble bonds, methyl branches, or rigidifying compounds) to regulate membrane fluidity in response to external factors (e.g. temperature, pH, pressure, etc). Thus, the molecular distribution and structural configuration of lipids allow us to reconstruct not only the paleobiology, but also the environmental and depositional conditions. In my talk, I will expose the strengths of lipid biomarkers as an astrobiological and paleobiological reconstruction tool, trying to make a journey from the fundamental search for life to the particular case of these geostable molecular fossils. I will explain how we can learn about detecting life in extreme environments with analogy (mineralogical, chemical, geomorphological or environmental) to Mars and other planetary bodies in the Solar System (Icy Moons), to help define what, how and where search for extraterrestrial life.
Link to Video

Dr. Ludmila Carone
Space Research Institute (IWF), Austrian Academy of Sciences, Graz
Austria

Evolution of planetary environments

May 29th, 2024

The importance of magma oceans to constrain habitability

Dr. Barbara Cavalazzi
Department of Biological, Geological, and Environmental Sciences, University of Bologna, Bologna
Italy

Traces of early life on Earth

June 12th, 2024

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