Got Metal? Life and Metals, the unexpected connection

SETI Talks

Tags: SETI Talks, SETI Institute, Outreach

Time: Wednesday, Apr 20, 2022 -

Location: Online

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Single-cell life appears quickly after the formation of our Earth and co-evolve with our planet over the eons. Biologists understand that all life requires trace elements, many of which are metals, to perform crucial chemical reactions. Recent studies show that geological activity, such as plate tectonics, plays a key role in controlling when and which metals are available for life during evolution.

We don’t yet know how life appears and could thrive in extreme conditions and the importance of the concentration of metals to increase or stop this coevolution. This question is essential in the framework of the discovery of exoplanets which forms in different conditions and probably evolve differently.

To discuss the role of metals in the evolution of life here on Earth and exoplanets, we invited two scientists from the University of Naples Federico II in Italy: Donato Giovannelli, a Microbial Ecologist and Professor who works on the coevolution of Life and the Planet and Giovanni Covone, astrophysicist and Professor of Astrophysics, whose research focuses on exoplanets and exobiology.

Molly Bentley, Executive Director of Big Picture Science, will moderate the discussion. Together they will explore how biologists study the co-evolution between the Earth and the microbial world, focusing on the relationship between the geological release of metals necessary for life and present in low concentrations and how this down-to-Earth research can inform astronomers about the quest for life on exoplanets.

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Donato Giovannelli

Donato Giovannelli is an Entrepreneur and a Microbial Ecologist working on the microbiology of extreme environments. He is Professor of Microbiology at the University of Naples Federico II where he works on the coevolution of Life and the Planet. He received his B.Sc. in Marine Biology and M.Sc. in Marine Ecology from the Polytechnic University of Marche, Italy. He obtained his Ph.D. in Applied Biology, Microbiology and Ecology in 2013 from the University of Naples Federico II. After the PhD, he spent time as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the laboratory of Costa Vetriani at Rutgers University, as a Visiting Scholar in the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, USA, and as an EON Research Fellow at ELSI, Japan. In December 2018 he joined the Department of Biology of the University of Naples Federico II as an Assistant Professor and was promoted directly to Full Professor in 2021.

Donato's research is focused on the co-evolution of the biosphere and the geosphere and in understanding how life influences planetary-scale processes. In his work, Donato combines classic microbiology techniques with data from comparative genomic, phylogenetic, and environmental surveys and computational approaches to reconstruct geo-bio interactions. In 2020 he was awarded a ERC Starting Grant to study the co-evolution of life and planet. The project, called CoEvolve, is looking at the co-evolution of biogeochemically-relevant proteins and trace metal availability in the environment. Additional projects include the subsurface of Antarctica, the relationship between convergent margins and subsurface microbiology and shallow-water hydrothermal vents among many others. He is also the vice-director of the master’s degree program in the Biology of Extreme Environments at the University of Naples, a new master program with a curricula in Astrobiology.

Giovanni Covone

Giovanni Covone is an astrophysicist, working on exoplanets and observational cosmology. He is Professor of Astrophysics and Cosmology at University of Naples Federico II, Italy. He received his PhD we studied at from the University of Naples Federico II. After the PhD, he was Postdoc Research at the Italian National Telescope Galileo, Canary Islands (Spain). Then he spent three years at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille (France) within the “Euro3D” network. He obtained a Cordis European Grant when he moved back to Italy at the INAF - Capodimonte Astronomical Observatory (Naples, Italy). He then moved to the Physics Department at University of Naples Federico II in 2008, where he is now Associate Professor.

His research is focused on two main fields of astrophysics: observational cosmology and exoplanets. Within the field of observational cosmology, he is interested in studying the structure of galaxy clusters by means of gravitational lensing and the property of dark matter.

In the field of exoplanets, he is interested in the search and characterization of terrestrial exoplanets by means of photometric transits and the study of the astrophysical conditions that allow life. Since 2018 he collaborates with the TESS team and he has participated in the first discoveries of Earth-like planets by TESS. He is a member of the PLATO Consortium, the ESA space mission designed to search Ears-like planets around Sun-like stars, to be launched in 2026. In Naples, he coordinates ExoPlaNATS, a growing team of researchers interested in exoplanets and exobiology. He is coordinator of the Astrophysics curriculum in the Physics master’s degree program in Naples and is teaching on wide range of topics: he teaches “Cosmology” at the Physics Department, “Fundamentals of physics and Cosmology” at the Philosophy Department and since this year the new class “Astrophysics of Life” at the Biology Department, within the new Master Degree program in the Biology of Extreme Environments.

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