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Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe


Last year, the Cambridge Initiative for Planetary Science and Life in the Universe (IPLU) opened the first round of the Cambridge Planetary Science and Life in the Universe Research Grants Scheme.

The purpose of the scheme is to enable researchers within the School of Physical Sciences of the University of Cambridge and the wider University to develop new research ideas or support existing work on planetology and the origin and nature of life in the Universe. 

The projects that have been selected for the first round of funding are listed below.

Ecological dynamics of shadow biospheres: Finding the unknown through its effects on the known 

Investigators: Dr Emily Mitchell (Department of Zoology), Dr Oliver Shorttle (Institute of Astronomy; Department of Earth Sciences), and Dr Paul Rimmer (Cavendish Laboratory).

Summer studentship: The search for life in the Universe is primarily focussed on search for Earth-like life, life that is carbon based and with left-based chirality of amnio acids. However, it is theoretically possible that other forms of life could exist, which have different biomachinery and that would leave a different fingerprint on their environment compared to Earth-like life. This issue has been a major concern in the search for life beyond Earth: will we recognise it when we see it? This idea is the hypothesised ‘shadow biosphere’ scenario – where life exists in parallel to Earth-like life, but based on different energy systems. To answer this question, this project will take a novel approach of modelling the ecological dynamics of systems with varying degrees of interaction, from the full interaction of a monotyped system, to the limited interaction of systems containing groups with incompatible biochemistries. Different types of shadow biospheres will have different network structures, with differing extents of connectivity between the two biospheres under assessment. The abiotic environments and key factors will be selected in terms of their plausibility as cradles for exoplanet life, origins, and early life on Earth. The student would apply ecological models to potentially identify ways to look for alien life right here on Earth.

Information on how to apply for this studentship can be found here.

An integrated toolkit for modelling the multi-phase chemistry of planetary atmospheres

Investigators: Dr Alex Thom (Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry), Professor Alex Archibald (Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry), Dr Oliver Shorttle (Institute of Astronomy; Department of Earth Sciences), and Professor Nicholas Tosca (Department of Earth Sciences).

Summer studentships: Atmospheres are our window into exoplanetary processes and surfaces are the laboratory bench for prebiotic chemistry; we need models that connect them for the purposes of evaluating the prebiotic potential of exoplanets, and inferring their geology. The team of four interns will design a python framework to integrate the multiple software codes used to model atmospheric chemistry, climate and aerosol processes to allow them to model atmospheric composition under a wide array of conditions from present-day to Hadean Earth as well as Mars and exoplanets.

Information on how to apply for these studentships can be found here.

Quantifying aliveness 

Investigators: Dr Paul Rimmer (Cavendish Laboratory), Dr Samantha Thompson (Cavendish Laboratory), and Dr Andrew Davison (Faculty of Divinity).

One of the most important concepts to have arisen in origins of life research is that aliveness may not be binary, but a many-valued variable ranging from zero (not at all alive) to unity (completely alive), or unbounded from zero (perhaps there are systems with greater aliveness than Earth life). This concept provides one way of thinking about the transition from non-life to life. This also may provide a methodology for connecting the origins of life on other planets to the search for life on those planets, by constraining the prior probability of life given what we know about the environment. Part of the transition from non-life to life can be used to predict how likely or unlikely it is for life to originate. This mapping can only be accomplished if aliveness is quantified. This project aims at exploring metrics for aliveness that combine far-from-equilibrium measures, such as the Gibbs Free Energy, along with teleological/teleonomical ideas, starting with components of Earth life as we know it, quantifying the gap between those components and the systems generated in the lab, and then abstracting to less Earth-like systems.

Did cosmic dust fertilise prebiotic chemistry?

Investigators: Professor Mark Wyatt (Institute of Astronomy), Craig Walton (Department of Earth Sciences), Jessica Rigley (Institute of Astronomy), Dr Oliver Shorttle (Department of Earth Sciences; Institute of Astronomy), Dr Dougal Ritson (MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology), Alexander Lipp (Imperial College London), and Dr Martin Suttle (Open University).

Earth's surface is lacking available forms of many elements considered essential for prebiotic chemistry, e.g., P, N, S, metals. In contrast, many extraterrestrial rocky objects are rich in these same elements. Limiting prebiotic ingredients may therefore have been delivered to Earth by the left-over debris of planet formation. Today, the flux of extraterrestrial matter to Earth is dominated by fine-grained cosmic dust. However, this material has been overlooked in a prebiotic context due to its dilute dispersal over a large surface area, despite evidence for sedimentary deposits of cosmic dust in polar regions. This project will test whether cosmic dust is capable of fertilising prebiotic chemistry on the early Earth by newly quantifying its delivery and evaluating the role of planetary sedimentary processes in concentrating it in prebiotic environments.

The cradles of alien life – Predicting the composition of exoplanet crusts

Investigators: Dr Oliver Shorttle (Institute of Astronomy; Department of Earth Sciences), Aprajit Mahajan (Natural Sciences, Trinity College, Cambridge), Dr Edward Tipper (Department of Earth Sciences), and Dr Paul Rimmer (Cavendish Laboratory).

Prebiotic chemistry and the life that may emerge from it are strongly reliant on locally available resources and environmental stability. The largest accessible reservoir of nutrients for prebiotic chemistry and life is a planet’s crust, which during weathering releases nutrients to a planet’s hydrosphere. Weathering of the crust is also central in stabilising a planet’s climate, as evidenced by the carbonate-silicate cycle on Earth, which has regulated atmospheric CO2 over million year timescales. Life’s need for nutrient supply and climate stability places a planet’s crust at the heart of understanding its habitability. This project will investigate the compositions of exoplanet crusts to constrain the life- and climate-supporting potential of planets throughout the galaxy.

Image credit: Sir Cam