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"From fossils of early life to the search for life on Mars" - Lecture by Frances Westall, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), France

During the lecture Dr. Westall will receive the Institute Honorary Fellowship.

16/05/2017 dalle 17:30 alle 19:30

Dove Sala Rossa, Palazzo Marchesini, via Marsala 26, Bologna (primo piano)

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Think about a planet with hot oceans, continuous volcanic activity and hydrothermal vents, both subsea and on land, a planet with a high frequency of devastating meteorite and asteroid impacts, a planet with no oxygen…

We would use the term “extraterrestial planet” to describe such an object. But this was the early Earth, the planet that saw the emergence of life. It was also a planet that teamed with microbial life inhabiting all possible ecological niches. Traces of this early life have been preserved in rocks dating back to 3.5 billion years ago that show us that life had already evolved to the photsynthetic stage. Importantly, many of the early fossil microbes and colonies are those that we would expect to find in ancient rocks (say about 4 billion years old) on Mars because habitats on both planets were similar – from a microbial point of view. This means that we can study these fossils to understand what we might find in Martian rocks and which techniques to use.

The year 2020 will see the launch of two missions to search for life on the red planet, the European/Russian mission ExoMars 2020 and the NASA Mars 2020. Our studies of the ancient traces of life will be of great importance to the success of the mission objectives.

During the event Dr. Westall receives the ISA Honorary Fellowship as a sign of recognition and appreciation for the quality of her studies and the impact of her research in the field of astrobiology.

 

Frances Westall is President of the European Astrobiology Network Association. She is internationally renowned for advances that have significantly contributed to the geomicrobiological field of microbial palaeontology, in particular to study of the oldest traces of life on Earth and the early Earth’s habitable environment. For these reasons, she was part of the group (1996-1999) that defined the European/Russian rover mission ExoMars 2018 and lead the search for the mission landing site from the astrobiological point of view, as well as participating scientifically in the mission as instrument Co-PI (microscope-CLUPI) and science team. Head the Astrobiology research group in Orléans, her research also covers experiments related to the synthesis of prebiotic building bricks of life in the origins of life field.

In detail, her research can be defined as falling within the domain of astrobiology, a field that encompasses the chemical and geochemical processes leading to the emergence of life and its evolution and destiny. This includes the emergence of life on Earth more than 4 billion years ago, as well as the emergence of life on other planets and satellites in the Solar System (Mars, Europa, Enceladus). In particular, she is interested in the implication of geology and geochemistry in the transformation of simple molecules into more complex structures and, eventually, simple cells. Another way to address the origin of life is to study its oldest traces in ancient terrestrial rocks on Earth and on Mars.