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  • richardmitnick 9:05 am on September 4, 2021 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "Building a better chemical factory—out of microbes", , , , Bioprocess engineering, , , , , , Glucaric acid, Metabolic engineering, Metabolite valve, , , Quorum sensing,   

    From MIT Technology Review (US) : “Building a better chemical factory—out of microbes” 

    From MIT Technology Review (US)

    August 24, 2021
    Leigh Buchanan

    Credit: Sasha Israel.

    Professor Kristala Jones Prather ’94 has made it practical to turn microbes into efficient producers of desired chemicals. She’s also working to reduce our dependence on petroleum.

    Metabolic engineers have a problem: cells are selfish. The scientists want to use microbes to produce chemical compounds for industrial applications. The microbes prefer to concentrate on their own growth.

    Kristala L. Jones Prather ’94 has devised a tool that satisfies both conflicting objectives. Her metabolite valve acts like a train switch: it senses when a cell culture has reproduced enough to sustain itself and then redirects metabolic flux—the movement of molecules in a pathway—down the track that synthesizes the desired compound. The results: greater yield of the product and sufficient cell growth to keep the culture healthy and productive.

    William E. Bentley, a professor of bioengineering at The University of Maryland (US), has been following Prather’s work for more than two decades. He calls the valves “a new principle in engineering” that he anticipates will be highly valued in the research community. Their ability to eliminate bottlenecks can prove so essential to those attempting to synthesize a particular molecule in useful quantities that “in many cases it might decide whether it is a successful endeavor or not,” says Bentley.

    Prather, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US)’s Arthur D. Little Professor of Chemical Engineering, labors in the intersecting fields of synthetic biology and metabolic engineering: a place where science, rather than art, imitates life. The valves play a major role in her larger goal of programming microbes—chiefly E. coli—to produce chemicals that can be used in a wide range of fields, including energy and medicine. She does that by observing what nature can do. Then she hypothesizes what it should be able to do with an assist from strategically inserted DNA.

    “We are increasing the synthetic capacity of biological systems,” says Prather, who made MIT Technology Review’s TR35 list in 2007. “We need to push beyond what biology can naturally do and start getting it to make compounds that it doesn’t normally make.”

    Prather describes her work as creating a new kind of chemical factory inside microbial cells—one that makes ultra-pure compounds efficiently at scale. Coaxing microbes into producing desired compounds is safer and more environmentally friendly than relying on traditional chemical synthesis, which typically involves high temperatures, high pressures, and complicated instrumentation—and, often, toxic by-products. She didn’t originate the idea of turning microbes into chemical factories, but her lab is known for developing tools and fine-tuning processes that make it efficient and practical.

    That’s the approach she has taken with glucaric acid, which has multiple commercial applications, some of them green. Water treatment plants, for example, have long relied on phosphates to prevent corrosion in pipes and to bind with metals like lead and copper so they don’t leach into the water supply. But phosphates also feed algae blooms in lakes and oceans. Glucaric acid does the same work as phosphates without feeding those toxic blooms.

    Producing glucaric acid the usual way—through chemical oxidation of glucose—is expensive, often yields product that isn’t very pure, and creates a lot of hazardous waste. Prather’s microbial factories produce it with high levels of purity and without the toxic by-products, at a reasonable cost. She cofounded the startup Kalion in 2011 to put her microbial-factory approach into practice. (Prather is Kalion’s chief science officer. Her husband, Darcy Prather ’91, is its president.)

    The company, which is lining up large-scale production in Slovakia, has several prospective customers. Although the largest of these are in oil services, “it also turns out, in the wonderful, wacky way chemistry works, that the same compound is used in pharmaceutical manufacturing,” Prather says. It’s required, for example, in production of the ADHD drug Adderall. And it can be used to make textiles stronger, which could lead to more effective recycling of cotton and other natural materials.

    Kalion’s first target is phosphates, because of their immediate commercial applications. But in her wider research, Prather has also drawn a great big bull’s-eye on petroleum. Eager to produce greener alternatives to gasoline and plastics, she and her research group at MIT are using bacteria to synthesize molecules that would normally be derived from petroleum. “Big picture, if we are successful,” Prather says, “what we are doing is moving things one by one off the shelf to say, ‘That no longer is made from petroleum. That now is made from biomass.’”

    From East Texas to MIT

    Born in Cincinnati, Prather grew up in Longview, Texas, against a backdrop of oilfield pumps and derricks. Her father died before she turned two. Her mother worked at Wylie College, a small, historically Black school—and earned a bachelor’s degree there herself in 2004, Prather is quick to add.

    Her high school’s first valedictorian of color, Prather had only vague ideas about academic and professional opportunities outside her state. With college brochures flooding the family’s mailbox in her junior year, she sought advice from a history teacher. “Math was my favorite subject in high school, and I was enjoying chemistry,” says Prather. The teacher told her that math plus chemistry equaled chemical engineering, and that if she wanted to be an engineer she should go to The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (US). “What’s MIT?” asked Prather.

    Others in the community were no better informed. What was then the DeVry Institute of Technology, a for-profit school with a less-than-stellar academic reputation and campuses around the country, was advertising heavily on television. When she told people she was going to MIT, they assumed it was a DeVry branch in Massachusetts. “They were disappointed, because they thought I was going to do great things,” says Prather. “But here I was going to this trade school to be a plumber’s assistant.”

    In June 1990 Prather arrived on campus to participate in Interphase, a program offered through MIT’s Office of Minority Education. Designed to ease the transition for incoming students, Interphase “was a game-changer,” says Prather. The program introduced her to an enduring group of friends and familiarized her with the campus. Most important, it instilled confidence. Coming from a school without AP classes, Prather had worried about starting off behind the curve. When she found she knew the material in her Interphase math class, it came as a relief. “When I was bored, I thought, ‘I belong here,’” she says.

    As an undergraduate Prather was exposed to bioprocess engineering, which uses living cells to induce desired chemical or physical changes in a material. At that time scientists treated the cells from which the process starts as something fixed. Prather became intrigued by the idea that you could engineer not only the process but also the biology of the cell itself. “The way you could copy and cut and paste DNA appealed to the part of me that liked math,” she says.

    After graduating in 1994, Prather got her PhD at The University of California-Berkeley (US), where her advisor was Jay Keasling, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering who was at the forefront of the new field of synthetic biology. At Berkeley, Prather sought ways to move DNA in and out of cells to optimize the creation of desirable proteins.

    The practice at that time was to bulk up cells with lots of DNA, which would in turn produce lots of protein, which would generate lots of the desired chemical compound. But there was a problem, which Prather—who lives near a scenic state park—explains with a local analogy. “I can go for a light hike in the Blue Hills Reservation,” she says, “but not if you put a 50-pound pack on my back.” Similarly, an overloaded cell “can sometimes respond by saying, ‘I am too tired.’” Prather’s doctoral thesis explored systems that efficiently produce a lot of a desired chemical using less DNA.

    In her fourth year at Berkeley, Prather received a fellowship from DuPont and traveled to Delaware for her first full-length presentation. Following standard conference practice, she laid out for her audience the three motivations underlying her research. Afterward, one of the company’s scientists politely explained to her why all three were misguided. “He said, ‘What you are doing is interesting and important, but you are motivated by what you think is important in industry,’” says Prather. “‘And we just don’t care about any of that stuff.’”

    Humbled, Prather decided a sojourn in the corporate world would reduce the risk that her academic career would be consigned to real-world irrelevance. She spent the next four years at Merck, in a group developing processes to make things like therapeutic proteins and vaccines. There she learned about the kinds of projects and problems that matter most to practitioners like her DuPont critic.

    Merck employed hordes of chemists to produce large quantities of chemical compounds for use in new drugs. When part of that process seemed better suited to biology than to chemistry, they would hand it off to the department Prather worked in, which used enzymes to perform the next step. “They were typically not very complicated reactions,” says Prather. “A single step converting A to B.”

    Prather was intrigued by the possibility of performing not just individual steps but the entire chemical synthesis within cells, using chains of reactions called metabolic pathways. That work inspired what would become some of her most acclaimed research at MIT, where she joined the faculty in 2004.

    Finding the production switch

    It wasn’t long after returning to MIT that this young woman from the Texas oil patch took aim at fossil fuels and their by-­products. Many of her lab’s projects focus on replacing petroleum as a feedstock. In one—a collaboration with MIT colleagues Brad Olsen ’03, a chemical engineer, and Desiree Plata, PhD ’09, a civil and environmental engineer—Prather is using biomass to create renewable polymers that could lead to a greener kind of plastic. Her lab is figuring out how to induce microbes to convert sugar from plants into monomers that can then be chemically converted into polymers to create plastic. At the end of the plastic’s usable life, it biodegrades and turns back into nutrients. Those nutrients “will give you more plants from which you can extract more sugar that you can turn into new chemicals to go into new plastics,” says Prather. “It’s the circle of life there.”

    These days she is drawing the most attention for her research in optimizing metabolic pathways—research that she and other scientists can then use to maximize the yield of a desired product.

    The challenge is that cells prioritize the use of nutrients, such as glucose, to grow rather than to manufacture these desirable compounds. More growth for the cell means less product for the scientist. “So you run into a competition problem,” says Prather.

    Take glucaric acid, the chemical produced by Prather’s company—and one that Keasling says is extremely important to industry. (“These molecules are not trivial to produce, particularly at the levels that are needed industrially,” he says.) Prather and her lab had been adding three genes—drawn from mice, yeast, and a bacterium—to E. coli, enabling the bacteria to transform a type of simple sugar into glucaric acid. But the bacteria also needed that sugar for a metabolic pathway that breaks down glucose to feed its own growth and reproduction.

    Prather’s team wanted to shut down the pathway nourishing growth and divert the sugar into a pathway producing glucaric acid—but only after the bacterial culture had grown enough to sustain itself as a productive chemical factory. To do so they used quorum sensing, a kind of communication through which bacteria share information about changes in the number of cells in their colony, which allows them to coordinate colony-wide functions such as gene regulation. The team engineered each cell to produce a protein that then creates a molecule called AHL. When quorum sensing detects a certain amount of AHL—the amount produced in the time it takes for the culture to reach a sustainable size—it activates a switch that turns off production of an enzyme that is part of the glucose breakdown process. The glucose shifts to the chemical-synthesis pathway, greatly increasing the amount of glucaric acid produced.

    Prather’s switches, called metabolite valves, are now used in processes that harness microbes to produce a wide range of desired chemicals. The valves open or close in response to changes in the density of particular molecules in a pathway. These switches can be fine-tuned to optimize production without compromising the health of the bacteria, dramatically increasing output. The researchers’ flagship paper, which was published in Nature Biology in 2017, has been cited almost 200 times. The goal at this point is to step up the scale.

    Like many of the mechanisms Prather uses in her research, such switches already exist in biology. Cells whose resources are threatened by neighboring foreign cells will switch from growth mode to producing antibiotics to kill off their competitors, for example. “Cells that make things like antibiotics have a natural way of first making more of themselves, then putting their resources into making product,” she says. “We developed a synthetic way of mimicking nature.”

    Prather’s Berkeley advisor, Keasling, has been using a derivative of the switch inspired by her research. “The tool for channeling metabolic flux—the flow of material through a metabolic pathway—is super-important work that I think will be widely used in the future by metabolic engineers,” he says. “When Kristala publishes something, you know it is going to work.”

    Mentoring young scientists

    Prather receives at least as much recognition for teaching and mentoring as for her research. “She cares deeply about education and is invested in her students in a way that really stands out,” says Keasling. Students describe her optimism and supportiveness, saying that she motivates without commanding. “She created an environment where I was free to make my own mistakes and learn and grow,” says Kevin V. Solomon, SM ’08, PhD ’12, who studied with Prather between 2007 and 2012 and is now an assistant professor of chemical and biomedical engineering at The University of Delaware (US). In some other labs, he notes, “you have hard deadlines, and you perform or you freak out.”

    It was at Merck that Prather realized how much she loves working with young scientists—and it was also where she assembled the management arsenal she uses to run her lab. So, for example, she makes sure to get to know each student’s preferences about communication style, because “treating everyone fairly is not the same as treating everyone the same,” she says. One-on-one meetings commence with a few minutes of chat about general topics, so Prather can suss out students’ states of mind and make sure they are okay. She sets clear standards, intent on avoiding the uncertainty about expectations that is common in academic labs. And when students do raise concerns, “it is important to document and confirm that they have been heard,” she says.

    The most effective leaders model the behaviors they want to see in others. Prather, who received MIT’s Martin Luther King Leadership Award in 2017, expects commitment and high performance from her grad students and postdocs, but not at the cost of their physical or mental health. She discourages working on weekends—to the extent that is possible in biology—and insists that lab members take vacations. And from the beginning she has demonstrated that it is possible to simultaneously do first-class science and have a personal life.

    Prather’s two daughters were both campus kids. She was 31, with a two-month-old baby, when she joined the faculty, and she would nurse her daughter in her office before leaving her at the Institute’s new infant-care facility. Later, she set up a small table and chairs near her desk as a play area. The children have accompanied her on work trips—Prather and her husband took turns watching them when they were small—and frequently attend their mother’s evening and weekend events. Prather recalls turning up for a presentation in 32-123 with both children in tow and setting them up with snacks in the front row. “My daughter promptly dropped the marinara sauce to go with her mozzarella sticks on the floor,” she says. “I was on my hands and knees wiping up red sauce 15 minutes before giving a talk.”

    Prather does set boundaries. She turns down almost every invitation for Friday nights, which is family time. Trips are limited to two a month, and she won’t travel on any family member’s birthday or on her anniversary. But she also welcomes students into her home, where she hosts barbecues and Thanksgiving dinners for anyone without a place to go. “I bring them into my home and into my life,” she says.

    When Solomon was Prather’s student, she even hosted his parents. That hospitality continued after he graduated, when he and his mother ran into his former professor at a conference in Germany. “She graciously kept my mom occupied because she knew I was networking to further my career,” says Solomon.

    It was an act in keeping with Prather’s priorities. Beyond the innovations, beyond the discoveries, her overarching objective is to create independently successful scientists. “The most important thing we do as scientists is to train students and postdocs,” she says. “If your students are well trained and ready to advance knowledge—even if the thing we are working on goes nowhere—to me that is a win.”

    On being Black at MIT-Bearing witness to racism

    As a student at MIT, Kristala Jones Prather ’94 was never the target of racist behavior. But she says other Black students weren’t so lucky. Even though no one challenged her directly, “there was a general atmosphere on campus that questioned the validity of my existence,” she says. Articles in The Tech claimed that affirmative action was diluting the quality of the student pool.

    During her junior year, a group standing on the roof of a frat hurled racial slurs at Black students walking back to their dorm. In response, Prather and another student collaborated with Clarence G. Williams, HM ’09, special assistant to the president, to produce a documentary called It’s Intuitively Obvious about the experience of Black students at MIT.

    “I was involved in a lot of activism to create a climate where students didn’t have to be subjected to the notion that MIT was doing charity,” says Prather. Rather, “it was providing an opportunity for students who had demonstrated their capacity to represent the institution proudly.”

    Prather’s decision to return to MIT as a faculty member was difficult, in part because her Black former classmates, many of whom had experienced overt racism, were discouraging their own children from attending. She worried, too, that she wouldn’t be able to avoid personal attacks this time around. “I didn’t want all the positive feelings I had about MIT to be ruined,” she says.

    Those fears turned out to be unfounded. Prather says she has received tremendous support from her department head and colleagues, as well as abundant leadership opportunities. But she recognizes that not all her peers can say the same. She is guardedly optimistic about the Institute’s current diversity initiative. “We are making progress,” she says. “I am waiting to see if there’s a real commitment to creating an environment where students of color can feel like the Institute is a home for them.”

    See the full article here .


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    The mission of MIT Technology Review (US) is to equip its audiences with the intelligence to understand a world shaped by technology.

  • richardmitnick 9:03 am on July 29, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "If Bacteria Could Talk", , , Quorum sensing   

    From Many Worlds: “If Bacteria Could Talk” 

    NASA NExSS bloc


    Many Words icon

    From Many Worlds

    July 29, 2019
    Marc Kaufman

    Hawaiian lava cave microbial mats appear to have the highest levels and diversity of genes related to quorum sensing so far. (Stuart Donachie, University of Hawai`i at Mānoa)

    Did you know that many bacteria — some of the oldest lifeforms on Earth — can talk? Really.

    And not only between the same kind of single-cell bacteria, but back and forth with members of other species, too.

    Okay, they don’t talk in words or with sounds at all. But they definitely communicate in a meaningful and essential way, especially in the microbial mats and biofilms (microbes attached to surfaces surrounded by mucus) that constitute their microbial “cities.”

    Their “words” are conveyed via chemical signaling molecules — a chemical language — going from one organism to another, and are a means to control when genes in the bacterial DNA are turned “on” or “off.” The messages can then be translated into behaviors to protect or enhance the larger (as in often much, much larger) group.

    Called “quorum sensing,” this microbial communication was first identified several decades ago. While the field remains more characterized by questions than definitive answers, is it clearly growing and has attracted attention in medicine, in microbiology and in more abstract computational and robotics work.

    Most recently, it has been put forward as chemically-induced behavior that can help scientists understand how bacteria living in extreme environments on Earth — and potential on Mars — survive and even prosper. And the key finding is that bacteria are most successful when they form communities of microbial mats and biofilms, often with different species of bacteria specializing in particular survival capabilities.

    Speaking at the recent Astrobiology Science Conference in Seattle, Rebecca Prescott, a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Biology said this community activity may make populations of bacteria much more hardy than otherwise might be predicted.

    Quorum sensing requires a community. Isolated Bacteria (and Archaea) have nobody to communicate with and so genes that are activated by quorum sensing are not turned “on.”

    “To help us understand where microbial life may occur on Mars or other planets, past or present, we must understand how microbial communities evolve and function in extreme environments as a group, rather than single species,” said Prescott,

    “Quorum sensing gives us a peek into the interactive world of bacteria and how cooperation may be key to survival in harsh environments,” she said.

    Rebecca Prescott is a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow in Biology (1711856) and is working with principal investigator Alan Decho of the University of South Carolina on a NASA Exobiology Program grant.

    And because “quorum sensing” has not been investigated in the world of astrobiology, “this study will be the first to illuminate how microbial interactions might influence survival on Mars and early Earth conditions.”

    This makes quorum sensing of interest to NASA, Prescott told me, because it potentially broadens the universe of environments where bacteria might survive.

    “Microbes don’t function as single species in nature, like we have them in most of our experiments.,” Prescott told me. “It’s therefore important for us to try and understand them as interactive communities – the socialites that they are.”

    Prescott’s research has taken her to extreme environments such as hypersalty ponds with strong ultraviolet light in the Bahamas, the hot springs of Iceland and the lava caves beneath the Hawaiian Islands, to name a few.

    In some of these locales, such as the Bahamas hypersaline mats, it is not unusual for lifeforms to desiccate — a profound drying that few organisms can survive. Yet certain microbes — when enclosed in their protective, slimy biofilms formed with the assistance of quorum sensing — are able go dry for years and then regain activity when water returns.

    Prescott’s colleague and supervisor in the research, University of South Carolina Environmental Health Sciences Professor and Associate Dean for Research Alan Decho, said of these sites: “These are incredibility harsh environments, where very little life other than bacteria can exist.”

    The bacterial samples are now going into a Mars simulator chamber in Scotland. That simulator, in the University of Edinburgh lab of astrobiologist Charles Cockell, will be where the examples of extremophile bacteria are tested for compatibility with an early and then a later Mars atmosphere and to determine how and if their chemical “talking” changes.

    The presence of quorum sensing might also lead some day to the discovery of biosignatures on Mars. This is because the bacteria signaling molecules — acyl homoserine lactones (AHLs) — are neutral lipids, and lipids are often preserved in the rock record.

    Quorum sensing was first identified and proven in the blowfish squid, which lives in sand off the Hawaiian Islands. bioluminescence. (Mattias Ormestad)

    In this tale of “talking bacteria” and their biofilms, it seems only proper that the species most associated with the discovery of quorum sensing by bacteria is the unusual bobtail squid of Hawai`i. The squid develops a striking bioluminescence at night, and it turns out that bacteria in its body are a source of the light.

    The bacteria in the squid (Vibrio fischeri) start the night dark and only become bioluminescent as the density of bacteria grows. That density leads, thanks to the quorum sensing phenomenon, to a changed expression of genes and release of proteins that lead to the bioluminescence. Most of the bacteria are later expelled when daytime comes.

    The tiny squid bacteria and the squid have their own symbiotic relationship: the bacteria collect a sugar and amino acid solution produced by the squid and the bacteria-induced light hides the squid’s silhouette when viewed from below.

    Prescott and her colleagues collected microbial mats at San Salvador Island of the Bahamas. where a lot of “bacterial talking” occurs. This is a Mars analog site due to high saline and high UV environment.

    For bacteria to use quorum sensing, they must possess three characteristics: the ability to secrete a signaling molecule, the ability to detect a change in concentration of signaling molecules, and an ability to regulate gene expression as a response to that change.

    This process is highly dependent on how the signaling molecules spread. Quorum sensing signaling molecules generally released by individual bacteria in tiny amounts that can slip away undetected if the cell density in the area is low. At high cell densities, the concentration of signaling molecules may exceed its threshold level and trigger changes in gene expressions.

    Alan Decho, a professor of microbial ecology at South Carolina University is a principal investigator on the NASA quorum sensing grant and worked with Prescott. He specializes in the study of biofilms.

    As a result, a main focus of quorum sensing research is on microbial mats and biofilms, the kind of slime-covered collections found most visibly in ponds and other waterways but most everywhere else too — on shower curtains, n the International Space Station orbiting the Earth, the plaque on your teeth, your cellphone and in fact in a number of places throughout our bodies. (Prescott makes a point of saying most bacteria are harmless, and even are essential for life.)

    Producing the protective biofilm mucus to make microbial “cities” is done as part of the quorum sensing process — an activity that helps create an environment that is more stable, with different cells or species doing different tasks. A bit like ants, perhaps, but on a microscopic level.

    The biofilms are also organized in part through quorum sensing in ways that result in bacteria that are more resistant to radiation being on the surface of the film while those that are harmed by oxygen would be found deeper in the mat.

    “Biofilm genes are controlled by quorum sensing,” Prescott told me. “Basically there has to be a lot of you for a mucus layer to make a difference, so microbes start making mucus once they sense other neighbors around.“

    Radiation protection provides a good model for how members of a mixed species biofilm will have different roles to play.

    ”The species that are more tolerate of radiation—or individual cells of same species—will exist at surface, and sometimes produce chemicals that are UV protectants. That also provides protection for others below that are less tolerate to UV. In addition, the biofilm mucus (exopolysaccahride) is a UV protectant itself.”

    “So certain members may be producing more mucus, while others are breaking down nutrients. Many biofilm researchers say biofilms are more like multi-cellular organisms than single cell, and it is certainly a step towards multicellularity.”

    And these organized activities are often coordinated through some sort of quorum sensing; i.e, chemical “talking.”

    Biofilms made up of a variety of species did better than most other biological samples when exposed to space conditions on the International Space Station. (ESA)

    Armed with a protective covering and other community-based strengths, biofilms are adaptable. Consider, for instance, the inside of the International Space Station, some 250 miles above the Earth. Biofilms can be found there all the time, and not because they were purposefully brought up.

    A Mars simulation chamber in the Edinburgh lab of Charles Cockell is used for testing which microbes and biofilms might survive harsh Martian conditions. (Charles Cockell)

    One batch of mixed bacterial biofilms, however, was intentionally delivered to the ISS for a European Space Agency-led study of bacterial microbes and larger species including fungi and lichen. The samples were exposed to the pressures, temperatures, radiation and more of space over a two-year period.

    While not all of the biofilm material survived and prospered, much of it did — more than most other samples.

    Prescott’s astrobiology work in Cockell’s Edinburgh lab will expose her collected biofilms to different but also harsh conditions — simulated Mars environments that can be changed to explore the effects of different conditions including extreme temperature, pressure, dryness, and radiation.

    The simulator is part of a cutting-edge effort to test microbes for potential future uses on Mars including manufacturing, “bio-mining,” and transforming elements available on Mars into a form that plants can use. Prescott will use the chamber to look for changes in the biofilm’s gene expression and quorum sensing under Mars conditions and will look at the AHL signaling molecules to see which species can maintain them.

    “We have no idea what will happen in the Mars environments; maybe they’ll die and maybe they’ll live,” she said. “And who knows? There may be quorum sensing systems on Mars different from anything we know.”

    See the full article here .


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    About Many Worlds
    There are many worlds out there waiting to fire your imagination.

    Marc Kaufman is an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is the author of two books on searching for life and planetary habitability. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported by the Lunar Planetary Institute/USRA and informed by NASA’s NExSS initiative, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

    This site is for everyone interested in the burgeoning field of exoplanet detection and research, from the general public to scientists in the field. It will present columns, news stories and in-depth features, as well as the work of guest writers.

    About NExSS

    The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context — as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. Leveraging current NASA investments in research and missions, NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy, using a systems science approach.
    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

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