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BIOL/GEOSC 474 – Astrobiology (Spring 2014)

Dr. Chris House

M W F 11:15 AM – 12:05 PM

House Office Hours: Monday 2 PM or by appointment in 217 EESI

Email:, Class Web Site on ANGEL



Planets and Life: The Emerging Science of Astrobiology by Woodruff T. Sullivan III (Editor), John Baross (Editor), plus handouts to download at ANGEL website 

Part 1 – Biochemical Evolution


Week 1

Jan. 13th – Introduction to class and abundance of life in the universe                                         Page 518-520

Jan. 15th – Origin of the Universe & the Big Bang, etc.                                            Cosmology

Jan. 17th – Fate of the Universe


Week 2

Jan. 20th – Martin Luther King

Jan. 22nd – Early Atmosphere / Faint Young Sun / the Habitable Zone (Kasting)       Chapter 4

Jan. 24th – The Earth and Planets Overview and Planetary Atmospheres


Week 3

Jan. 27th – The origin of the elements

Jan. 29th –  How many sources of material for solar system?

Jan. 31st – Solar system Formation                                                                              Chapter 3


Week 4

Feb. 3rd – Origin of life overview                                                                               Chapter 6

Feb. 5th – Prebiotic synthesis                                                                                     Chapter 7

Feb. 7th – Prebiotic synthesis                                                              Term Paper Outline Due


Week 5

Feb. 10th – Organics in space

Feb. 12th  – “Pre-RNA,” RNA world                                                                           RNA World

Feb. 14th – “Pre-RNA,” RNA world


Week 6

Feb. 17th – Phylogenetic analysis

Feb 19th – Protein Evolution                                                                                       Doolittle

Feb. 21st  – EXAM I


Week 7

Feb. 24th – Genomes (Martino)                                                                       Hand out HW, Chapter 12

Feb. 26th – Extra solar planet Detection (TBD)                                                                       Chapter 21

Feb. 28th – Extra solar planets (TBD)


Week 8

March 3rd – Diversity of Life – microbial metabolism                                                HW outline Due

March 5th – Hot Origin of life?                                                                                                Chapter 8

Part II – Planetary Evolution


March 7th – The Hadean Earth




Week 9

March 17th – Biosignatures and the Precambrian fossil record                                     

March 19th – Rise of Oxygen                                                                                      HW Due

March 21st – Rise of Oxygen


Week 10

March 24th – The fossil record continued                                                                                         Chapter 16

March 26th – Mars                                                                                                      Chapter 18

March 28th – Mars


Week 11

March 31st – Mars

April 2nd – Europa                                                                                                      Chapter 19

April 4th – Exam II


Week 12

April 7th – Europa

April 9th –  Enceladus

April 11th – Titan                                                                                                        Chapter 20


Week 13

April 14th –  Titan                                                                                          

April 16th – Other Icy Worlds

April 18th – Fermi Paradox                                                                


Week 14

April 21st – SETI                                                                                             Term paper due, Chapter 26

April 23rd – SETI

April 25th – Future for humans in space


Week 15

April 28th – Discussion of mission concepts

April 30th – Discussion of mission concepts

May 2nd – Discussion of mission concepts


Final’s Week

Exam III


The titles of particular lectures listed above are tentative.  The class may get AHEAD or BEHIND this lecture schedule.  However, the due dates for assignments and exams (in bold) do NOT change as the lecture schedule is altered.




Exam I – 20 %

HW assignment – 15 % Exam II – 20 %

Exam III – 20 %

Term Paper & Defense – 25%

Make-up exams due to a conflicting school activity will be considered only if arranged before the scheduled exam or, in the case of an emergency, after the scheduled exam upon receipt of a note from the appropriate authority.


Academic integrity is a requirement of this course.  All coursework must represent an individual effort, unless otherwise specified in the directions of the particular assignment. Any student who provides or receives unauthorized assistance on an assignment, or who utilizes unauthorized materials will be reported to the University's Office of Judicial Affairs for appropriate disciplinary action.  Plagiarism will result in a significantly reduced grade, and plagiarism includes copying text verbatium from the web.


Exams are a mixture of fill in the blank, short answer, true/false, and multiple choice.


The one “homework assignment” will require Internet access.  Each student will produce their own homework paper, but students are encouraged to work with one or two other students during the assignment. However, students can only work with those who have a different assigned unknown gene.


The class requires an 7-8 page term paper written in 12 point Times font, 1.5 spaced, with 1- inch margins. The paper is a proposed NASA mission concept for Astrobiology. You need to select a mission objective (e.g., to find extra-solar planets) and/or target (e.g., Mars), science goals, and proposed instruments. You must explain your choices and write a convincing proposal. You also need to select which category of mission you are proposing – Discovery (~$500M + plus launch), New Frontiers (~$700M + launch), or Flagship (several billion dollars). The term paper must include at least 8 references from primary literature (journal articles), web pages used as sources should be referenced, but DO NOT count toward the 5 required sources.  Papers that are based predominantly on web sites rather than primary literature will not receive as high a grade as those that are based on primary literature.  Students are highly encouraged to discuss possible topics with the instructors during the first half of the semester.  However, the final product must be the individual’s work. plagiarism in any form will, at a minimum, result in a zero for this assignment. Plagiarism includes copying text verbatium from the web.