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Biology professor gets $340K grant for exoplanet life research

January 30, 2019

DeKALB – A $340,000 grant from NASA will allow one Northern Illinois University microbiology professor to pursue his passions for biology and outer space.

NIU biology professor Wesley Swingley said he will lead a team of scientists for a project that could help determine which distant planets observed by future space telescopes might show signs of complex life, like there is on Earth.

“This grant is really aimed at not answering a question, but putting a puzzle piece into answering the question of whether oxygen on another planet is a sign of life on another planet,” Swingley said.

The study will derive clues from microorganisms found on Earth, blue-green bacterial algae known as cyanobacteria, according to an NIU news release. Liquid water is considered the key prerequisite ingredient for life, but cyanobacteria play a role in the evolution of life as we know it by producing oxygen, the release said.

Swingley said his enthusiasm for space science began when he was a kid, but the project is more of an extension of graduate research he started that tied space and biological sciences together. For example, he said, he has researched desert organisms on Earth and drew parallels on whether such organisms may exist on Mars.

“It’s been on my mind for many, many years,” Swingley said.

The research team includes Niki Parenteau of the NASA Ames Research Center in California, Nancy Kiang of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City, Robert Blankenship of Washington University in St. Louis and Min Chen of the University of Sydney in Australia, the release said. Two NIU graduate students and several undergrads also will be involved in the project.

Swingley said other scientists, including physicists and geologists, will be involved in the project.

He said they all share the same

goal of learning more about the origins of life and planetary systems in space.

Swingley said the funding from NASA is meant to be used for research over the next two years.

“Our hope is that it will continue on beyond that, either through more funding or association with other larger planetary observation projects,” Swingley said.

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