2021 Exploration and Origins Colloquium

Explorigins Colloquium

Dear Astrobiology, Origins, and Space Enthusiasts,

The ExplOrigins early career group invites you to join the 2021 Exploration and Origins Colloquium! This virtual colloquium will have events spanning two days: 

Wednesday, February 17th: Poster Session 

Thursday, February 18th: Research talks and Mars 2020 Perserverance Landing viewing

Our aim is to highlight work involving space exploration; biological, geological, and astronomical origins; and astrobiology of any sub-field at Georgia Tech and beyond.

Through this colloquium, we hope to:

      • forge relationships between diverse individuals of various fields, experience levels, and backgrounds
      • expand our internal awareness of local work an dinnovations
      • encourage collaboration and interdisciplinary understanding
      • provide a professional growth opportunity for early career individuals including undergraduates, graduates, and post-docs

For registration and abstract submission, complete the form linked below by the end of the day on January 21st (see update below). Announcement of selected speakers and poster presentations will be made on January 25th.

Update: The abstract deadline has been extended to January 29th! Get those abstracts in!


Georgia Tech astrobiologists develop COVID-19 test kit

Astrobiology News

In spring-summer 2020, Georgia Tech astrobiologists teamed up to create an in-house test kit to boost testing supplies. Read the NASA press release here.

Pre-print posted to MedRxiv on July 31, 2020:

SJ Mascuch, S Fakhretaha-Aval, JC Bowman, MTH Ma, G Thomas, B Bommarius, C Ito, L Zhao, GP Newnam, KR Matange, HR Thapa, B Barlow, RK Donegan, NA Nguyen, EG Saccuzzo, CT Obianyor, SC Karunakaran, P Pollet, B Rothschild-Mancinelli, S Mestre-Fos, R Guth-Metzler, AV Bryksin, AS Petrov, M Hazell, CB Ibberson, PI Penev, RG Mannino, WA Lam, AJ Garcia, JM Kubanek, V Agarwal, NV Hud, JB Glass, LD Williams, RL Lieberman. Buzz about RT-qPCR: An RT-qPCR formulation for SARS-CoV-2 detection using reagents produced at Georgia Institute of Technology. MedRXiv [link]

Widespread testing for the presence of novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 in patients remains vital for controlling the COVID-19 pandemic prior to the advent of an effective treatment. The early testing shortfall in some parts of the US can be traced to an initial shortage of supplies, expertise and/or instrumentation necessary to detect the virus by quantitative reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR). Here we show that academic biochemistry and molecular biology laboratories equipped with appropriate expertise and infrastructure can produce the RT-qPCR assay and backfill pipeline shortages. The Georgia Tech COVID-19 Test Kit Support Group synthesized multiplexed primers and probes and formulated a master mix composed of enzymes and proteins produced in-house. We compare the performance of our in-house kit to a commercial product used for diagnostic testing and describe implementation of environmental testing to monitor surfaces across various campus laboratories for the presence of SARS-CoV-2.

Test Kit Figure 1

Image by Rebecca Guth-Metzler, PhD candidate, advisors: Loren Williams and Jennifer Glass (Figure 1 in Mascuch et al. 2020, MedRXiv [link].

CoS funding for GT Astrobiology!

Astrobiology News

The GT Astrobiology Program was funded by College of Sciences Strategic Goals and the Sutherland Dean’s Chair for an infusion of $69k over the next three years!

News article here.

We plan to use this award to fund student fellowships, ExplOrigins symposia, seminar speakers, student travel support, and creation of a new Astrobiology Undergraduate Certificate program!

PSAS: A microbe’s-eye view of cryosphere carbonates

The history of life on Earth is dominated by microbial communities, and aspects of their evolving
relationship with surface environments can be preserved by carbonates. In this talk, I focus on lakes
Joyce and Fryxell of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, Antarctica, to assess attributes of cryosphere
environments that influence microbial carbonates: namely ice cover, cold temperatures and
seasonality. Microbial mats in both of these lakes contain abundant carbonates, but differ in redox
chemistry and the degree of apparent biological influence on carbonate precipitation. Though such
cryosphere carbonates do not contribute significantly to the sedimentary record, these rare examples from modern environments provide necessary models for reconstruction of long term paleolake climate records and inform paleoenvironmental interpretations of ancient cryospheres like Snowball Earth episodes.

Tyler Mackey,

Assistant Professor at the University of New Mexico in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences

PSAS: Planetary Scale Microbial Dispersal


Earth’s atmosphere provides a thin barrier to the severe conditions of space. Globally, terrestrial microorganisms from our planet’s surface move through the blanketing atmosphere, analogous to how marine microbes drift through oceans. Whereas a century of exploration has allowed oceanographers to characterize marine life at nearly every depth, the same is not true for the “ocean” of air above our heads. High‐altitude exploration has been severely constrained by a shortage of reliable experimental systems. This seminar will discuss recent advances in the microbiological exploration of Earth’s atmosphere with the use of high-flying NASA aircraft and scientific balloons. Discoveries from these platforms are relevant to astrobiology in two fundamental ways: (1) Earth’s stratosphere is a natural laboratory for assessing the potential survivability of microbes on the surface of Mars which possesses a similar combination of conditions (high radiation levels and ultralow temperature, pressure & relative humidity); and (2) Methods for reliably collecting and detecting trace levels of microbial biomass at extreme altitudes can contribute to life detection strategies for other solar system targets.

David J. Smith

NASA microbiologist who founded the Aerobiology Laboratory at Ames Research Center

PSAS: The Jupiter polar cyclones as seen by almost 4 years of Juno observations


The NASA spacecraft Juno discovered the circumpolar cyclone structures on Jupiter in 2017, and it has been monitoring their evolution ever since. These cyclones are organized in structures shaped like regular polygons. I will discuss the evolution of these structures as seen by Juno from February 2017 to November 2020  focusing on the data provided by the JIRAM instrument (Jovian InfraRed auroral mapper). Through these observations we have been able to monitor the properties, position and evolution of cyclonic and anticyclonic structures at latitudes above 80° both in the North and South poles of Jupiter.  

Fundamental questions concerning Jovian cyclogenesis concern the formation mechanism and whether these cyclones are deep or shallow structures. JIRAM’s measurements show that any change in a structure is an extremely unlikely event on an annual scale, which has only happened once, and only temporarily in 2019. Neither the merging of two cyclones, nor the disappearing/creation of one stable cyclone has ever been observed. 

Finally, I will discuss recent numerical studies relevant to both Jupiter and Saturn and how their results ‘fit’  JIRAM observations and possible steps forward to solve the deep – shallow conundrum.

Annalisa Bracco,

Professor School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Institute of Technology

Congrats to Mirza Samnani!


We are very proud of Mirza Samnani Georgia Tech Aerospace Engineering graduate student & GT Astrobiology Graduate Certificate Program Candidate, who invented this life-saving robot!

Read his remarkable story here.