Astrobiology Fall 2020


  • Instructors: Nathan Yee,
  • Office Hours: By appointment
  • Basis of Grade: 10 of 12 quizzes (50%); Final Exam (50%)

Learning Goals

Students will study biological processes common to all life on Earth and apply the principles of biology to explore the origins, evolution, and distribution of life in the Universe. Student will examine the basic geologic/chemical/physical processes relevant to the formation of habitable worlds. Students will learn about the transition from speculation to scientific inquiry that has resulted in our scientific exploration of astrobiology. Finally, students will analyze and interpret scientific data, including fossil records on Earth, chemical data from the robotic rovers on Mars, and remote sensing data of other planets and moons telescope data.

Tentative schedule (subject to change)

Week 1Introduction to Astrobiology
Week 2Topic: What is Life? Structure of Life; Cells; Replication; Building Blocks of Life; Biochemistry and Molecular Evolution
Week 3Topic: Early Life. Prokaryotes; Hydrothermal Vents; Energy Generation and Metabolism; Last Common Ancestor; Bacteria and Archaea
Week 4Topic: Earth: A Dynamic World. Earth and Life History; Co-evolution of the Biosphere and Geosphere; Geologic Drivers of Evolution
Week 5Topic: Photosynthesis. Anoxygenic Phototrophs; Oxygenic Photosynthesis; Carbon Isotopes; The Great Oxidation Event
Week 6Topic: Evolution. Mutation and Genetic Change; Adaptation and Selection; The Tree of Life; Eukaryotes
Week 7Topic: Habitable Worlds. Processes and conditions that create and maintain habitable environments; Earth and life history; Ancient and contemporary habitable environments
Week 8Topic: Complex Life. The Rise of Multicellularity; Evolution of Animals
Week 9Topic: Biomarkers. How to Look for Biosignatures; Chemical and Molecular Fossils; Evidence of Past Life on Earth
Week 10Topic: Search for life beyond the Earth. Drake equation; Exobiology; NASA missions
Week 11Topic: Mars. Formation, geology, interior, and surface; Meteorites and AH 84001; Water on Mars; Environment and Habitability; Search for Life on Mars
Week 12Topic: Icy Worlds. Europa; Enceladus; Other Icy Bodies
Week 13Topic: Exoplanets. Methods of Detection; Types of Planets; Exoplanetary Systems; Exoplanet Atmospheres
Week 14Topic: Is There Anybody Out There? Exoplanet Atmospheres; The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence