Foundations of Complex Life is a research project investigating the early evolution and preservation of complex life on Earth. Our team is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute and headquartered at MIT, but includes scientists at institutions across the United States.

About Our Research

Plain English Technical Summary

Astrobiology is an interdisciplinary endeavor, and the scientists on our team use several approaches to study how complex life arose on Earth, and how its signatures are preserved:

phylo 1 By studying the genetic information in modern organisms to understand how complexity evolved in the earliest animals, and to better understand how we can use genetic information to tell when evolutionary events happened;

2 By studying the record of Earth’s history contained in sedimentary rocks from the time just prior to the rise of animals, between 1200 and 650 million years ago, reading these rocks for clues about changing environmental conditions by chemical analysis, and systematically scouring them for traces of life — from fossils as well as chemical signatures;


3 By making mathematical models of the carbon cycle in order to understand how oxygen — critical for large, complex organisms — was able to build up in the atmosphere because of changes in how organic matter decays;

mars-sm24 By applying insights from studying the foundations and preservation of complex life on Earth to missions on Mars (members of our team are actively involved in mission planning for both the Curiosity and Opportunity rovers, as well as conducting laboratory experiments on Earth to enable interpretation of the data returned from Mars);

epo-sm25 And, finally, by engaging the public in our research through an active program of education and public outreach, including teacher-scientist workshops, science festivals, museum collaborations, and interactive, multimedia online learning experiences.