Oana Marcu’s research interests include molecular adaptations of cells to extreme habitats on Earth, as analogs for Mars environments that could harbor life. Survival of life in deserts requires adaptation to desiccation, extreme temperatures and radiation, which limit the presence of life. For extremophiles, adaptation implies maintaining the structural and functional integrity of biomolecules (DNA, protein, lipids), which are otherwise damaged through oxidation.
Oana's research projects look at adaptive responses in microbial communities from two environmental niches in dry deserts, Atacama halites and Mojave soils; the response to stress in uni- and multicellular organisms and the specification of cell fate; elemental mapping to determine mechanisms of adaptation to transient environmental stress; cellular and physiological responses to changes in radiation and microgravity. A main interest is in determining the conservation of functional genetic pathways that allow adaptation and survival, during evolution. Aspects of these projects include molecular biology laboratory work (cloning, assays for quantifying gene expression and molecular damage etc); biochemistry and microbiology assays; bioelemental imaging and quantification using X-ray fluorescence and spectroscopy at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center on beamlines 2-3, 6-2 and 7-3. These projects are currently suported by NASA SMD (Exobiology) and HEOMD (Fundamental Space Biology), and two proposals awarded at SSRL.
Oana also initiated the STEP (Science, Technology and Exploration Program), an Astrobiology Science Camp for students and teachers she ran in collaboration with her colleagues at NASA Ames and SETI in 2009-2011 (http://advancedstudieslabs.org/step) with grant support from NASA SMD Education Office and local support from NASA Ames Research Center, Lockheed Martin, the Ames Contractor Council and from volunteers from the Silicon Valley and international community.