BIOTA Research Scholars

Current Research Scholars

Francesca Cary

Masters Student, University of Hawai’i at Mānoa


Francesca is a Fulbright Scholar currently studying Earth and Planetary Science at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She is interested in a pivotal area of astrobiology research, the origin of life, which led to her inclusion in 2021 as the first invited BIOTA research scholar. Her central question is: which elements of life today – and likely involved in life’s origins – are universal across chemical and planetary environments? Addressing this question would require a shift from the Earth-centric definition of life, and bring us closer to a crisp definition of what characteristics life has, and the jobs life has to accomplish. Given that life ultimately emerged from chemistry, chemical differences in geologic settings between planets that are conducive for life to begin can also suggest what forms it could take. 

Francesca comes from Australia with a background in geology and genetics, which has motivated her to combine her knowledge to pursue the idea that characteristics of life today reflect its environment of origin. Francesca aims to apply the central BIOTA hot spring hypothesis for the transition from prebiotic chemistry to primitive cellular communities that are capable of evolution through selection, and growth through network collaboration; to see how universally this origin process might apply across worlds in the solar system (and beyond). To start with a world broadley similar to Earth four billion years ago, but with notable differences, Francesca will begin with Mars. Given geologic evidence of terrestrial hot spring settings found on Mars, she will start with simulating Martian analog chemistry in these settings to test and compare whether geochemically plausible differences between the two planets could affect how life may have emerged on Mars. She will apply the results of these experiments to suggest how life on Mars could potentially have deviated from the evolutionary trajectory taken by life on Earth. Saturn’s moon Titan, a world with truly ‘alien chemistry’, is a compelling place to further test hypotheses of how a radically different environment might influence the life forms that might plausibly emerge there. A Titan environment could be a more illustrative test of the universality of chemical requirements we think life needs to start, as it is so chemically different from Earth or Mars. If there is a narrow range of requirements that life needs to originate, actually simulating and testing a variety of ‘candidate requirements’ across truly different worlds can establish the constraints on this range. This work is centrally important to the development underway surrounding “urability”, a new term defining a set of parameters for worlds and environments where an origin of life may be supported (Damer & Deamer, in preparation).

Francesca is also a student collaborator on the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover working with the Mastcam-Z instrument team. She aspires that as a result of her involvement in the mission, her future research will have a lens that will help determine where and how to look for life elsewhere. With her current interests and BIOTA collaboration, she also hopes to gain a better understanding of how future missions searching for life could be constructed based on the new principles of urability, rather than the more broad definition of habitability for life as we know it. Furthermore, taking an origins approach to the possibilities for life to emerge in different chemistries expands the search towards life as we don’t know it. 

Francesca has the following research foci:

  • ‘Urable’ Chemistry
    • Urability in Francesca’s work will involve testing potential chemical environments that have urable conditions, and how life can originate from different chemistries.
  • Biogeochemistry
  • Astrobiology and the search for biosignatures on Mars and Titan

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