UArizona launches Arizona Astrobiology Center to unlock the mysteries of life in the universe

The asteroid Bennu

The Arizona Astrobiology Center will include faculty and researchers from the OSIRIS-REx mission, which ventured to the near-Earth asteroid Bennu to collect a sample. The asteroid contains material left over from the dawn of the solar system, so scientists expect to learn about how asteroids in the early solar system could have seeded life on Earth. Bennu is seen here ejecting particles from its surface on Jan. 19, 2019.

NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona/Lockheed Martin

The University of Arizona on Tuesday announced the opening of the Arizona Astrobiology Center, which brings together more than 40 faculty members from four colleges and 13 disciplines to conduct cutting-edge astrobiological research, train diverse future leaders and encourage collaborative dialogue with communities about the existence, origin and evolution of life in the universe.

This announcement comes on the heels of the success of the UArizona-led OSIRIS-REx mission, which delivered a treasure trove of pristine rocks and dust – the very building blocks of our solar system's origin – from the asteroid Bennu. Scientists from around the world, including some from UArizona, have begun digging into the material to discover new insights about the origins of life on Earth and much more.

The sample's arrival on Earth marks not only the beginning of new scientific research but has also sparked the creation of the Arizona Astrobiology Center, which will serve as a hub of scientific collaboration and public engagement.

Dante Lauretta

Dante Lauretta is the director of the Arizona Astrobiology Center director and principal investigator for NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission.

Chris Richards/University Communications

Dante Lauretta, Regents Professor of planetary sciences at the UArizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory and principal investigator for NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission, is the center director.

"The formation of the center signifies our passion for unraveling the profound mysteries of our universe and our unwavering commitment to understanding the origin of life, the incredible story of our solar system's birth and the quest to find life elsewhere in the galaxy," Lauretta said. "Together, we embark on this exciting journey to explore the cosmos while also engaging with communities to illuminate the wonders of life."

UArizona's highly regarded astrobiology education program offers students the opportunity to explore the universe's grand questions, Lauretta said. The program spans six departments, including astronomychemistry and biochemistryecology and evolutionary biologygeosciencesmolecular and cellular biology and planetary sciences.

Corey Knox

Corey Knox is the Arizona Astrobiology Center deputy director

But the Arizona Astrobiology Center's reach extends beyond these departments. Part of what the center will explore – in addition to life's origins and existence on other worlds – is what such discoveries might mean to different cultures and traditions around the world. The center also seeks to share these grand ideas through public engagement efforts, said the center's deputy director, Corey Knox.

"The University of Arizona is renowned for pioneering research, especially in planetary sciences. With the establishment of the Arizona Astrobiology Center, our faculty and students will be looking at the universe, life and humanity through a new lens that combines scientific expertise with scholarship in humanities, fine arts and other disciplines," said University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "The knowledge and discoveries that result from this collaboration are sure to be transformational, and Dante Laurette is the right person to lead the way. I am proud that the University of Arizona is a place where this kind of exploration is possible."

A broad approach to big questions

Sawsan Wehbi, a graduate student studying genetics and astrobiology, is collaborating with Lauretta to understand how asteroids like Bennu could have seeded early life on Earth.

Wehbi said she's eager to connect not only with faculty through the center, but also with other students involved in astrobiology research.  

"As a biologist approaching the question of life's origins, I've found that I have so much in common with the geology majors who investigate rock formations and compositions of hydrothermal vent systems and the astronomy majors working on protoplanetary systems and near-Earth asteroids," she said. "We get to discuss these fundamental questions from different angles, which is at the heart of this interdisciplinary science."

Center members are also exploring topics and methods of inquiry that extend beyond traditional astrobiology.

Solange Duhamel, an associate professor of molecular and cellular biology, studies how aquatic microbes adapt to extreme environments on Earth. Her work explores how life might arise on other worlds.

For Ken McAllister, Sumayya Granger and Judd Ruggill – College of Humanities faculty members who study the speculative field of xenolinguistics, or extraterrestrial languages – the center will serve as a hub where they can discuss their ideas and be involved in the "center's collaborative, transdisciplinary and forward-looking efforts," said McAllister, who is the college's associate dean for research and program innovation.

"The college specializes in research related to intercultural knowledge and fluency, multilingualism, translation and interpretation, and applied linguistics, including xenolinguistics," he said. "The prospect of exploring ways to transform the terrestrial humanities into disciplines encompassing universal scales would be exceptionally difficult to pursue in isolation. The center will significantly reduce the difficulty of pursuing such work and open new doors to grant funding, community engagement and curriculum development."

Ellen McMahon's research focuses on how the arts work to help us make sense of ourselves, our situations and our surroundings. As associate dean for research in the College of Fine Arts and member of the center, she will facilitate projects at the intersection of art and astrobiology that make scientific findings about humanity's place in the universe relatable for a broad and inclusive audience, which is one of the center's primary goals.

"Art provides unique opportunities for embodied experiences, enabling individuals to make sense of the vast expanse of cosmic knowledge we encounter daily," McMahon said. "This function of art – to help us feel what we know and know how we feel – is critical for the individual and social change needed to rise to the challenges facing our species here on Earth."

Deputy director Knox, an educational researcher and cultural studies scholar, focuses on the inclusion, expansion and transformation of science education and engagement. She thinks that astrobiology is perfectly suited to engage diverse audiences both in and beyond academia.

"The center's mission is to make astrobiology relevant to everyone," Knox said. "In a way, it's all about origins stories: Where did we come from? How did we get here? It will be exciting to engage in discussions and discoveries with people across disciplines, cultures and backgrounds."

Student-powered from day one

While the Arizona Astrobiology Center will be a hub for diverse scientific endeavors and dialogue, its faculty will also nurture the next generation of astrobiologists, scientists, thinkers and creators, Lauretta said.

"For students fortunate enough to be a part of this visionary institution, the opportunities are nothing short of extraordinary," Lauretta said. "From day one, they'll find themselves immersed in the heart of groundbreaking scientific endeavors, collaborating alongside world-renowned faculty and fellow students from diverse disciplines. They will have the chance to work on projects at the forefront of astrobiology, from decoding the secrets of asteroids like Bennu to exploring the possibilities of life beyond Earth's boundaries."

The Arizona Astrobiology Center is also committed to fostering a culture of community engagement, enabling students to share their passion for science with the public. In fact, the astrobiology ambassadors club has already begun outreach efforts. More than a dozen undergraduate and graduate students helped design and staff an event at the Children's Museum Tucson on Sept. 24, when the OSIRIS-REx sample landed on Earth.

"Answering some of the kids' questions about space, life and the mission was truly exhilarating," said Wehbi, a member of the astrobiology club. "Community outreach is another big reason why I'm excited to be part of the center."

UArizona faculty, staff, students and community members can participate in the center in many ways, including through seminars and research partnerships, and also by designing, supporting and attending programs and events.