BMSIS Scientist Feature: Dr. Zach Adam

Dr. Zach Adam is interested in origins of life questions, with particular regard for the origin of eukaryotic life.

He is currently a staff scientist at Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona and a member of the Kacar Research Group, where he specializes in chemical and geological investigations of early life. He works mainly with Precambrian microfossils and conducts experiments with radiolysis reactions, which involve using alpha, beta, or gamma radiation to form complex molecules important for life as we know it from organic building blocks.

Dr. Adam is, by training, a paleontologist, aerospace engineer, and astrobiologist, and his experience ranges from fieldwork to government projects to academia. He obtained a double bachelor’s in science in both Earth and Space Sciences and Aeronautics and Astronautics Engineering at the University of Washington, and went on to obtain a masters in the latter.

Dr. Adam has been interested in origins of life throughout his academic career. In fact, for his master’s thesis, “Actinides and the Origins of Life,” he investigated the role of the radioactive actinide elements on the periodic table in the abiotic formation of life on Earth. He analyzed the unique chemical properties of these elements under early Earth radiation conditions and provided evidence for the idea that life on Earth began on a radioactive beach environment. Dr. Adam pursued his Ph.D. in Earth Sciences at Montana State University, where, as part of his dissertation, he discovered some of the oldest, and most well-preserved, eukaryotic fossils yet found in the world at the Belt Supergroup location.

Dr. Adam worked with the Earth-Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, where he and his collaborators discovered a new pathway for formamide production based on prebiotic Earth conditions, again using radiation as a central variable in those experiments. Formamide, with help with certain minerals, can facilitate the production of nucleobases and sugars which are the foundations for DNA, RNA, and amino acids, making it a promising candidate as an ingredient for the origin of life. Dr. Adam also worked with Andy Knoll’s group at Harvard University, in conjunction with JPL, to investigate the stable isotope values of the Belt Supergroup microfossils. These isotope values reveal clues about the metabolic processes of these early organisms, and Dr. Adam wants to find out how those processes differ from modern metabolisms and from other taxonomic groups from that era.

Before his delve into Earth Sciences, Dr. Adam worked for the federal government as a launch vehicle inspector, and he worked specifically with the SpaceX spacecraft Falcon 1, 9, and Dragon during his aeronautical engineering studies. His discovery of the Belt Supergroup microfossils, in addition to being some of the oldest eukaryotic fossils yet found, also provides a unique opportunity for future Martian missions. The topological and sedimentary features of the Belt Supergroup share similarities with certain locations on Mars, and so scientists could potentially compare those microfossil samples from Montana with Martian geologic samples to learn more about the ancient Martian environment. NASA is investing in the techniques that Dr. Adam uses to analyze the isotope values of microfossils in order to employ them on the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover and Mars Sample Return missions. Dr. Adam is also active in science outreach, participating in various public seminars, workshops, and mentorship programs around the United States and the world.

Written by BMSIS YSP Research Associate Brooke Carruthers.

Brooke is a student at the University of Arizona (UA) and a member of the Kaçar Research Group.