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How does life begin and evolve? Does life exist elsewhere in the Universe? What is life's future on Earth and beyond? These most profound questions are the focus of Astrobiology, the study of the origin, evolution, distribution and destiny of life in the Universe. Recent advances in biology and space exploration and technology make it possible for us to find answers. Astrobiology is multidisciplinary and closely linked to diverse research topics in astrophysics, molecular biology, biochemistry, prebiotic chemistry, ecology of extremophiles, microbiology, physiology, planetary sciences, geology, palaeontology, space exploration and technology, law, and philosophy.

Research interests

Within the department of astrophysics, geophysics and oceanography, two areas of research in astrobiology are developed and include the search for signs of life in the solar system and beyond.

The detection of extrasolar life involves the detection of earth-like exoplanets and the analysis of their atmospheric composition to detect potential spectroscopic biosignatures such as ozone or water. The HARIGS group (high angular resolution imaging from ground and space) is mainly oriented towards exoplanet detection and characterization, using new techniques such as interferometry and coronography (http://vela.astro.ulg.ac.be/themes/telins/harigs/welcome.html).

Astrobiologists also develop knowledge and technologies for the detection of potential past or recent life in our solar system. The search for past or present life beyond Earth requires a solid understanding of life's origin and evolution on the only planet on which life is known to exist-the Earth. Hence, the search for evidence of life and environments on the early Earth, where life originated, evolved and later developed complexity are critical components in developing mission plans for Astro/Exobiology space missions. Instruments deployed on Mars or on returned samples to look for traces of past life (programme AURORA link: http://www.esa.int/export/esaMI/Aurora/index.html should be tested on fine-grained terrestrial sedimentary rocks where biosignatures are known to be preserved. Emmanuelle Javaux' research is relevant to the search for life on other planets in two ways. Firstly, her ultimate goal is to understand the mechanisms and environmental context of biospheric evolution on the early Earth by identifying the fossils (be they morphological, ultrastructural, or chemical) of early prokaryotes and eukaryotes, determining their biological affinities, and examining their patterns of evolution through intervals of environmental change. This approach, in which sedimentary geology, optical and electronic microscopy, and microchemistry are used in combination, is applicable to Martian sediments. Indeed, terrestrial discoveries provide a comparative database for evaluating extraterrestrial materials and for characterizing biosignatures (features whose presence or abundance require a biological origin).

This ongoing research (in collaboration with many international scientists including members of the CNRS, Harvard University and the Australian Center for Astrobiology) includes the determination and characterization of resistant biopolymers in a range of living prokaryotes, protists and fungi by actualistic taphonomy, combined microscopy and microchemistry, the determination of the modifications of chemical composition due to thermal alteration, and the comparison with combined microscopy (light microscopy, SEM, TEM) and microchemical analyses (carbon structure, biopolymer composition, biomarker molecular components, and both elemental and carbon isotopic composition) of Proterozoic and Archean microfossils. This will permit us to characterize biosignatures needed for paleobiology and astrobiology. Such a multidisciplinary approach offers new possibilities to investigate the record of early life on Earth and beyond.

Extragalactic Astrophysics and Space Observations (EASO)
With support of thelogo
Université de Liège

Université de Liège
Faculté des Sciences

Institut d'Astrophysique et de Géophysique,
Allée du 6 Août, 17 (Sart Tilman, Bât. B5c)
4000 Liège
Secrétariat: Denise CARO
Tél.: 04.366.97.16
Télécopieur: 04.366.97.46