Astrobiology Enthusiasts – Recommended Reading

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A-level Biology By: Please log in to see tutor details
Subject: Biology » A-level Biology
Last updated: 07/02/2018
Tags: astrobiology, book recommendation, book review, general science, planetary science

Below are a few astrobiology related books that I recommend and my subsequent reviews. Enjoy!

Cosmic Biology, How Life Could Evolve on Other Worlds - Louis Neal Irwin and Dirk Schulze-Makuch, 2011

As the title suggests this book explores the possibilities of life on other worlds, but importantly it also delves deeper into the chemical restraints or possibilities for types of organisms that have not evolved here on Earth. It is clearly written and explains chemical processes in an easy to understand manner so I would recommend this book to astrobiologically inclined academics and amateurs alike.

The book reviews numerous potential habitats in the solar system and relates these to the potential of finding life on similar exoplanets. With a chapter on the characteristics of life on Earth this book caters for those without an in-depth knowledge of life on Earth and therefore the concepts presented in this book can be understood by those that have not had a broad education in natural sciences. This book occasionally veers away from the stereotypical watery environments, such as those of the subsurface of Mars or the subsurface oceans of Europa, to delve into the possibilities of life in such environments as the hydrocarbon lakes on Titan and the thick atmospheres such as those of Saturn or Venus.

Concerning Titan, a particular point raised in this book is the differences between Titan and the Earth and if life on Titan is discovered then the lesson would be that life can be very different from us rather than gaining insight into the origins of life on Earth. I think this is an important point which is lost in many papers that purse Titan's secrets; too often research compares Titan to primordial habitats on Earth but as is pointed out in this book the composition, characteristics (e.g. temperature) and history of Titan are so unlike that of Earth that comparing Titan to the primordial chemistries and subsequent evolution of life on Earth is somewhat unfounded. The complex carbon chemistries on Titan is interesting planetary research in its own right without the need to link it to the origin of life on Earth, and as for astrobiological associations, will go some way to explaining the origin of life on Titan if any carbon-based organisms are found.

The authors also explore theories into the evolution and universal occurrence of intelligent life, leading into considerations of the eventual fate of intelligent life and also other types of other organisms. This is a well-rounded book that considers the history and future of life on Earth, solar system and elsewhere in the universe.

Astrochemistry and Astrobiology - Ian Smith, Charles Cockell and Sydney Leach (Eds.), 2013

As the title suggests this book is divided - the first chapters focus on astrochemistry and the later chapters explore Astrobiology. The introductory chapter includes the basic information of atom structure and chemical processes which then lead into more detailed chapters. The biology-based reader can therefore easily grasp the detailed astrochemistry chapters which are particularly well written for the non-chemist.

The astrochemistry chapters become invaluable when learning about the feasibility of habitable regions due to the limitations of chemical processes. I consider this section to be especially useful for astrobiologists or enthusiasts with a purely biological background. It gives the reader a greater understanding of the history of the universe, including, the important chemical processes that led to the formation of galaxies and planetary systems. It also reviews the current knowledge of the prebiotic synthesis of organic compounds that would have led to the origins of life on Earth.

As expected, the astrobiological sections of this book focus on the chemical processes that govern terrestrial-like biota i.e. carbon- and water-based life. These chemical processes will also have an effect on other types of biota, for example…. Silicon…. However, this book reflects that currently astrobiological knowledge is quite limited to how these chemical processes could govern exotic types of life beyond theoretical understanding taken from experiments with water. This is not a problem with this book, in fact it is impressively comprehensive, but puts into context the quantity of experimental data we currently possess concerning non-water based biological systems.

I would recommend astrobiologists to read the introductory chapter followed by the astrobiology chapters….. Then if you come across a chemical process you are not familiar with, refer to the appropriate astrochemistry section in the book – this is made easy as the appropriate section is noted after chemical processes are mentioned in the astrobiology chapters.

Life in Ancient Ice - John D. Castello & Scott O. Rogers (Eds.), 2005

There is a surprisingly high biodiversity within seemingly inaccessible and inhospitable icy habitats on Earth. This book explains about this icy life in context of its possible delivery, the specific environmental characteristics of each habitat, the methods of scientific study and exploration of these environments, recommended methods to prevent contamination, questions still to answer, and the possible consequences of the re-animation and re-introduction of supposed long extinct biota into the Homo sapien dominated regions of the world.

Even though the majority of the book is split into chapters that are very specific to one area of research the book as a whole gives a good overview of the types of icy habitats on Earth, the range of geographic locations of sites of interest, the type of species of microbes found, the ratios of different species within assemblages in different icy habitats, the range of techniques to study microbes in-situ or cultured, and the range of life stages of microbes (e.g. spore, cyst, or vegetative).

I would recommend this book for any astrobiologists interested in the possibility of life living within icy habitats on other planets or moons; because in order to find exobiological communities in icy habitats on other worlds we need to first familiarise ourselves with our own icy communities - their coping mechanisms, ecology, range of habitats, and methods of studying these microbes.

This book has all the basic information needed for those early-career researchers that are considering to work on psychrophiles in order to contribute to the field of astrobiology - it has a good overview of techniques, contamination issues and how to overcome these, many chapters detailing information about most areas of research and what has been done, and most importantly it includes the current questions that need to be answered – in my opinion the most important stated for astrobiology was the need for more work on deducing metabolic activity in situ within solid ice.

However, one big question that was not addressed much in the book was the question of coping mechanisms for microbes living in the icy habitats (rather than forming spores or cysts). There was only a paragraph or so dedicated to the addition of polyunsaturated fatty acids into the cell membrane in order to keep the membranes fluid, however, nothing on the use of proteins etc. This is not too surprising as there is not too much information on the physiology of psychrophiles, especially as this book was being writing and therefore misses out any discoveries made since 2004/5. However, I feel a chapter on this subject would have made this book more appealing to astrobiologists. In the very least it should have been included in the list of focus areas for future research. Due to the lack of extensive comment on this area and its exclusion in the focus areas for future research I would say that this book is missing a vital element in order to be considered a 'The biological guide to life in ice', rather I would call it a 'Guide to the ecology of life in ice'.

In general it is a well-rounded book, full of interesting formation given in an easy to read manner that is good for those that are just starting to discover this area of research. For those already studying icy microbes this book might seem a little too basic to be of use to them, however, certain chapters might still be of interest, for example 'Chapter 2: Recommendations for Elimination of Contaminants and Authentication of Isolates in Ancient Ice Cores' shows the results of comparing different decontamination techniques and clearly indicates the most effective method, which should probably be the standard and utilised by all working on ice cores.

Also I would recommend reading up on chapters in this book focusing on the Antarctic for those wanting to join in the exhilarated debates that are anticipated when the findings of the direct sampling of Lake Vostok by the Russian Antarctic expedition during this season's expedition are released.

Titan from Cassini-Huygens - Robert Brown, Jean Pierre Lebreton and Hunter Waite (Eds.), 2010

The Cassini-Huygens mission has provided an incredible diversity and wealth of information about Titan. This claim is supported by this sizable book that encompasses all the scientific results of the Cassini-Huygens mission in regards to Titan. The immensity of new data and the complexity of this fascinating moon has entitled Titan to its own volume, as where the results concerning Saturn and its other moons are contained within a single volume entitled 'Saturn from Cassini-Huygens'.

This book aims to encompass the enormity of scientific research that has utilized data presently accumulated from the Cassini-Huygens mission. The authors upholds this intent by structuring the book to flow from the pre-mission knowledge of Titan through to chapters ordered around recent discoveries due to the Cassini-Huygens mission, such as data about Titan's origin, structure, geology, atmosphere, ionosphere, seasonal changes and astrobiology. Much of the book is dedicated to explaining an array of noteworthy chemistries that are going on within the atmosphere, and to a lesser extent, the surface and interior of Titan. Many of the chemistries that have been the focus of study are processes that form hydrocarbons and nitriles. The book ends by proposing unanswered and newly fashioned questions that future missions to Titan could answer.

This book could be used in a variety of ways as the overview at the beginning of the book describes the main results for Titan which is then fully explained in later chapters. The overview manages to weave all the areas of Titanian scientific study into one complete picture which is not only evocative but also facilitates the effortless transition into the focused chapters. This means that those that are only interested in a certain aspect of Titan can read through the short overview and pick out with ease those sections that they would like to continue with, using it as a text book. However, the book also has an excellent flow and is written in 'plain' English with many colour illustrations, therefore can be read straight through as though it was a scientific novel, telling the story of Titan from those that are the most intimate with this captivating moon. Also, the accompanying CD includes a magical composite video of the Huygens landing, which includes many elements of data from Huygens into one single beautiful video and is riveting enough that it can be watched numerous times without any reduction in interest.

When considering this book as being appropriate for ASB members it needs to be noted that the astrobiological importance of a large degree of the research is not generally pointed out throughout the book. Instead the astrobiological significance has been collated into one chapter, which is concerned more with the relationship of chemistries going on within Titan that can be somewhat paralleled to conceivable processes that took place on the pre-biotic Earth - rather than research into the habitability or types of life that could inhabit Titan. This parallels the types of astrobiological research that has been done to date and opinions of many of those studying Titan who dismiss the surface as inhabitable and shrug their shoulders in disinterest at the importance of the subsurface ocean for astrobiological potential. This runs deep into the chapter which, rather than all the chapter authors writing in cohesion, has been split into sections each having been written by a single author. Each author has their own opinions on the issue of habitability and consequently discusses different aspects of astrobiology on Titan. This produces a well rounded view of the issues of astrobiology on Titan; however, it doesn't go into too much detail on the possible forms of exotic biota living in hydrocarbon lakes on the surface and only comments on the possibility of life in the subsurface ocean.

Also missing from the chapters 'Titan's Astrobiology' and 'Titan Beyond Cassini-Huygens' are any discussions of future missions involving any kind of active search for extant biota. This could come in the form of looking for actual living biota within the hydrocarbon lakes on the surface, or searching the cryovolcanic sites for remains of biota that once lived in the subsurface ocean and subsequently dragged to the surface in icy flows, or maybe even sending probes that could melt their way to the subsurface ocean like those proposed for Europa. Once again, this lack of discussion effectively reflects the discussions of this nature within the Titan community at large, which is to say that it is oddly absent.

In conclusion, this book should be on the shelf of any Titan enthusiast who is looking for a book that brings together the majority of knowledge about Titan to date. However, in terms of the astrobiological potential of Titan it lacks some theoretical suggestions for exotic biota, and thoughts into future missions based on astrobiological concerns. I would recommend to those ASB members that are only interested in the astrobiological aspects to Titan to read the single condensed chapter focusing on this issue - unless they wish to learn about the whole Titan environment in order to come up with their own theories or experimental research into the habitability of Titan.

Reference: Saturn from Cassini-Huygens (2009) Dougherty, Michele; Esposito, Larry; Krimigis, Stamatios (Eds.) Springer. ISBN: 978-1-4020-9216-9.

Dr Lucy Norman GCSE Science Tutor (South West London)

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