Wednesday, June 3, 2009

MSU postdoctoral researcher wins NASA fellowship

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A postdoctoral research associate at Montana State University whose research has the potential to answer questions about the possibility of life on Mars as well as global climate change has won a prestigious fellowship from NASA.

Eric Boyd, a postdoctoral research associate at MSU, has won a prestigious fellowship from NASA. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

Eric Boyd's NASA Astrobiology Institute Fellowship will allow him to explore the possibility that living organisms exist in subglacial ecosystems at very cold temperatures. The existence of these organisms in an environment that may be similar to conditions on Mars might mean that life could also exist on the Red Planet.

Just four researchers were awarded fellowships this year. The fellowship is for one year with the possibility of renewing it for a second.

The NAI fellowship program provides opportunities for Ph.D. scientists and engineers of unusual promise and ability to perform research on problems largely of their own choosing, yet compatible with the research interests of NASA and the member teams of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, according to the program's Web site.

Boyd first began research on what ultimately led to the fellowship through a bet. After earning his doctorate at MSU, Boyd accompanied his friend on a research field expedition to the Robertson Glacier in Alberta, Canada.

In addition to his enthusiasm for taking a trip to the beautiful glacier, Boyd thought he would use the excursion to look for archaea, single-celled microorganisms. Until recently, cells without nuclei (bacteria) and cells with nuclei (eukarya) were considered to be the only two major groups of life on Earth. However, scientists now consider archaea, which are often found in extreme environments, to be a third basic form of life.

And, even though archaea had never before been found in subglacial environments, Boyd was so confident that he could find the microbes that he bet his friend Mark Skidmore, an MSU professor, a six-pack of beer that he would find archaea while on the expedition.

Which is exactly what he did.

Boyd collected samples at the glacier and then analyzed them back in the laboratory, focusing his work on genetic and physical traits found in the cells. He found gene sequences that are consistent with archaea and that had never before been found in subglacial sediments. He says that the archaea living under the ice produce methane gas through enzymatic conversions involving simple carbon compounds, such as carbon dioxide or acetate.

In addition to what Boyd's findings could mean about the possibility of life on Mars, the research also has implications regarding global climate change. Methane is a greenhouse gas, and is far more potent that carbon dioxide. With approximately 11 percent of Earth's landmass covered by ice, there is a potential that methane-producing microbes could significantly impact Earth's climate, Boyd said.

"There is a reservoir of methane people aren't considering under the glaciers," Boyd said. "It has big implications with respect to global climate change."

Separately, researchers in another NASA lab discovered that large plumes of methane were being released from Mars, which is another hint that the methane-producing microbes might exist there.

Boyd is from Iowa and received a bachelor's degree in biology from Iowa State University in 2002. He began his studies at MSU in the fall of 2003 and earned a doctorate in microbiology in July 2007.

Though he grew up wanting to become an orthopedic surgeon, Boyd switched tracks after taking a field biology course in Colorado the summer after his sophomore year of college.

Studying at the Rocky Mountain Biological Lab near Crested Butte, Colo., was an "amazing experience," Boyd said. "I was living in a rustic landscape, walking through people's field sites to go to class. It was impossible not to grab hold of the magic of that place.

"I took field courses in geology, and ecology, and learned about evolution," he said. "While studying the human body is a neat thing, it's also confining. I became interested in environmental studies because of these more global questions."

John Peters, the director of MSU's Thermal Biology Institute who is advising Boyd's work, said his research could answer some big questions.

"It's really relevant to space exploration," Peters said. "It maps the limits of life and limits of habitability."

Peters called Boyd enthusiastic, knowledgeable and creative.

Boyd would eventually like to be a professor and have his own lab and students. He said he finds motivation in his work because it is so difficult.

"It's hard work to do," he said. "If it wasn't hard somebody would have done it before."

But, Boyd thinks it is also well worth it.

"I learn something every day that humanity has never known before."


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