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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872



News from URI's Graduate School of Oceanography...

URI scientists awarded $3.9 million from NASA to study life
beneath the ocean floor

Narragansett, R.I. -- April 4, 2001 -- The University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography's (GSO) pioneering research into the elements of life found within sediments buried in the ocean floor has received highly coveted support with a $3.9 million, five-year grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The GSO was also named as a new member of the agency's selective international research consortium, the Astrobiology Institute.

GSO geological oceanographers Steven D’Hondt and Arthur Spivack and biological oceanographer David C. Smith have been awarded the grant to examine the deep biosphere of the Earth and the "extremophile" communities that thrive in this extreme environment. Other members of the research team are Kai-Uwe Hinrichs and Andreas Teske of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

"This prestigious award is a testament to the quality of the research and teaching being done here," said University of Rhode Island President Robert L. Carothers. "Just as the scientists at the Graduate School of Oceanography have made discoveries that have helped us to better understand life on Earth, their work now may also contribute to a new body of knowledge about other planets."

"Much of the recent interest in life on other planets has focused on the possibility of sub-surface life. However, we still don’t understand much about such life on Earth. This project will document the conditions that limit or enhance sub-surface life on Earth, the effects of that life on its environment and possible signatures of that life. This will aid the search for sub-surface life on other planets," explained D’Hondt.

After a highly competitive peer-review process, NASA selected the URI-led team to be one of fourteen national and three international project teams that comprise its Astrobiology Institute. These research teams are selected to investigate the diversity of life inhabiting extreme environments on Earth and to develop analytical models to search for habitable planets outside of our Solar System. The Institute is an academic and research consortium that studies the origin, evolution, distribution and future of life on Earth and in the universe.
The primary objectives of the URI-led team are to understand: the subsurface microbial ecosystems of marine sediments, their role in earth’s biogeochemical cycles, and their relevance to the search for life on other planets. Most of these studies will involve the Ocean Drilling Program and its international partners.

The project will introduce graduate students, undergraduate students, and post-doctoral scholars to astrobiology research and train them to participate effectively in the field.

"This is an incredible scientific opportunity in which GSO is an international leader," said Spivack. "Graduate, undergraduate , and post-graduate education is a significant component of this project. It will allow URI students to be exposed to and involved in the cutting edge of new and exciting scientific discoveries."

The URI research team has been a pioneer in the study of marine subsurface microbial ecosystems. Over the past two years, they have been involved with the Ocean Drilling Program (ODP), developing techniques for the recovery and study of microorganisms. The Ocean Drilling Program is an international partnership of scientists and research institutions that samples the deeply buried sediments and rocky crust of the ocean. In early 2002, the team will lead the first ODP expedition whose principal purpose is the study of the deeply buried biosphere.

The URI Graduate School of Oceanography is one of the nation’s largest marine science education programs, and one of the world’s foremost marine research institutions. Founded in 1961 in Narragansett, R.I., GSO is home to the Coastal Institute, the Coastal Resources Center, Rhode Island Sea Grant, the Ocean Technology Center, and the National Sea Grant Library.

For Information: Lisa Cugini (401) 874-6642, lcugini@gso.uri.edu or
Jhodi Redlich 401-874-2116, jredlich@uri.edu

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