UK Centre for Astrobiology

Life in Extreme Environments

Description of Charles Cockell's group.

The Life in Extreme Environments Group is led by Charles Cockell.

Charles Cockell's research group has for a number of years working on studying life in extreme environments, including the space environment and the application of this knowledge to understanding the limits of life on Earth and the habitability of other planetary bodies, as well as advancing the human future beyond Earth.

Examples of our interests and previous work

Discoveries from the group have included studies on impact craters as habitats for life in extremes. Asteroid and comet impact events have been an important geological influence on the Earth through time. His group showed that impacts can improve conditions for life by making new habitats (Cockell et al., 2002), in contrast to the prior view that impacts are only destroyers of life. His group has studied the subsurface effects of impact events showing that deep fracturing (>1.5 km) of rocks by impact in the Chesapeake impact crater improved fluid flow and thus availability of energy and nutrients in the deep subsurface (Cockell et al., 2012). More recently, as the microbiology lead of IODP Expedition 364, his group showed how the impact that ended the Cretaceous still influences the present-day deep biosphere (Cockell et al., 2021).

Other work from the group has included: 1) Polar biology. For example work on hypoliths (microbes living under rocks) showing how in the polar regions they can fix as much carbon as vascular plants in polar deserts (Cockell and Stokes, 2004), 2) Investigating the ionic limits to life, including studying the ionic limit to subsurface life (Payler et al., 2019) and the molecular responses of organisms to ions, 3) Mapping the limits to the biosphere. Investigating how physical and chemical limits restrict different types of organisms and the biosphere as a whole (e.g. Harrison et al., 2015), 4) Studying on the UV radiation environment of the early Earth, mars and other planets.

Our group has led many international projects to investigate life in extremes, for example a 2.5 million Euro EU project called MASE (Mars Analogues for Space Exploration) which investigated anaerobic microorganisms and their adaptations to the single and combined stresses of extreme environments with applications to Mars. His group also led the microbiology effort of the NASA-funded project BASALT to develop protocols for the human exploration of Mars in which investigations on the microbial ecology of volcanic terrains informs methods for human exploration of Mars (Cockell et al., 2019).

One of the most extreme environments is outer space. Our group has used the International Space Station and other space platforms to select for, and isolate, novel microorganisms (Olsson-Francis et al., 2010), the use of which is to understand how the combined stresses of outer space affect life (Wadsworth et al., 2019). Cockell was instigator and PI of the European Space Agency (ESA) BioRock project on the International Space Station (ISS) to study the biomining of elements from rocks. It was the first mining experiment in space and demonstrated rare earth element (REE) (Cockell et al., 2020) and vanadium biomining in microgravity and simulated Martian gravity. This project was the result of 11 years work and involved the development and flight of the first prototype biomining reactor in space. 

Collaborations and positions

We are always interested in talking to anyone who is interested in studying life in extremes and the applications of this knowledge to the study of life on Earth and the search for life beyond Earth. We are also interested in discussed collaborations and work that advance the human future beyond Earth. We use a variety of methods, but the lab is primarily focused on microbiology.