Astrobiologist Aditya Chopra is about to analyse the most primitive organisms on Earth to find the lowest common denominator of life in work that could give hints on where to look for living things on other planets.
Chopra, a PhD candidate at The Australian National University's Research School of Earth Sciences in Canberra, is to analyse the chemical composition of bacteria and primitive life forms called archaea, the descendants of the common ancestor of all life on Earth.
He wants to find out the minimum elemental requirements of life and learn more about the origin and evolution of life on Earth.
"We want to see what life is made of - what is common to all life," he says. "What were the basic elements - the raw ingredients of life - back in the early days apart from carbon and hydrogen? That is the origin of life."
Chopra will collect samples of bacteria and archaea, including extremophiles, the life forms that thrive in punishingly hot or acidic environments.
The work could help settle the debate over whether life began on Earth in hydrothermal vents at the depths of the oceans. It could also help examine if life on Earth had extra-terrestrial origins, with the planet "seeded", perhaps by meteorites from Mars.
Using some of the most sensitive instruments, Chopra will determine the elemental composition of life forms to much higher precision than has ever been possible before and Chopra hopes to collaborate with NASA astrobiologists in future.
He says the University's strength in astronomy, the earth sciences and biology makes it an ideal place to conduct astrobiology research.