About the ACA

It is the only centre of astrobiological research in Australia and is an Associate Member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, one of only two in the world.

The Australian Centre for Astrobiology was founded by Prof. Malcolm Walter in July 2001 at Macquarie University and then moved to the University of New South Wales in 2008. It is the only centre of astrobiological research in Australia. The centre is an Associate Member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute, one of only two in the world. The ACA also has close links with the European Space Agency and other international space agencies and institutions around the world.

Our mission statement is:

"To provide an environment for world-leading interdisciplinary research into the origin and evolution of life on Earth, across the Solar System and throughout the Universe, and to disseminate those research outcomes to academic communities, students, and the general public across the globe."

Astrobiology is a relatively new field of study, developing at the crossroads of astronomy, biology, geology, paleontology, physics and chemistry. The ACA is one of the few organisations in the world that is truly inter- and multi-disciplinary in a way that reflects the goals and aspirations of astrobiology as a scientific discipline. Its key goals include contributing to the understanding of what makes a habitable planet, studying the co-evolution of life and habitats on early Earth, and helping to guide the exploration for life outside of our world.

ACA members participate in collaborative research with scientists at institutions from across the globe, focussing on three main areas of investigation:

  • The evolution of early life and its relation to changing habitats over time.
  • The search for exoplanets and habitable worlds.
  • The community structure of stromatolites (microbial communities that form laminated rock structures) and diversity of cyanobacteria.

The ACA also has a world-leading media, education and outreach program related to its research – including a Mars Yard at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney – that has attracted Australian Federal funding. The ACA has developed, in association with NASA, a “virtual field trip” that allows students to join scientists in ACA field study areas in the Pilbara and Shark Bay, Western Australia, where research is being conducted on Modern stromatolites and the world’s oldest convincing evidence of life (also stromatolites), respectively.

ACA members are leaders in their field, are widely published, attract significant research funding, contribute to scientific discussion at international meetings and on the web, and have been awarded for their research. For example, Professor Walter, Professor Neilan and Dr Burns were awarded a prestigious Eureka Award in 2005 to acknowledge the success of their interdisciplinary research. The Federal Government recently awarded Professor Neilan a Federation Fellowship. In 2009, Professor Walter won an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellowship. Prof. Tinney is an Australian Research Council Discovery Outstanding Research Awardee. Prof Van Kranendonk was the 2012 European Association for Geochemistry Eminent Speaker Awardee.

Our location

Biological Sciences Building (D26), Gate 9, UNSWBiological Sciences Building (D26), Gate 9, UNSW

External Advisory Board

Chair: Pieter Visscher


University of Connecticut, USA

Prof Visscher is a geomicrobiologist and astrobiologist specialising in ancient and modern microbial mats. He works in multi-disciplinary collaborative research groups in research field areas around the world, and is involved in conservation programs worldwide.

Vilas Distinguished Profesor, Emeritus Clark Johnson


University of Wisconsin-Madison

Prof Johnson is a world-leading isotope geochemist, geobiologist, and astrobiologist, whose primary resarch interests lie in the application of stable and radiogenic isotopes to the study of ancient life and crust and mantle evolution. He led the decade long NASA-funded Wisconsin Astrobiology Research Consortium.

Prof Kathleen Campbell


University of Auckland

Kathy is a geologist, paleoecologist and astrobiologist. Her prime interest is the interaction of ancient organisms with their surrounding environments, including terrestrial hot springs. Kathy helps direct the Te Ao Marama Centre for Fundamental Inquiry, which is interested in questions that promise to transcend disciplinary boundaries, including the Origin of Life.

Dr Mary Voytek, Director NASA Astrobiology



Dr. Voytek has led the Astrobiology program since 2008 and served on several advisory groups to Department of the Interior, Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and NASA, including the Planetary Protection Subcommittee. Her primary research interest is aquatic microbial ecology and biogeochemistry.

Prof. Jack Szostak



Nobel Prize laureate Szostak is a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, and the Alexander Rich Distinguished Investigator at Massachusetts General HospitalBoston. Szostak has made significant contributions to the field of genetics. His achievement helped scientists to map the location of genes in mammals and to develop techniques for manipulating genes. His research findings in this area are also instrumental to the Human Genome Project. He was awarded the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, along with Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol W. Greider, for the discovery of how chromosomes are protected by telomeres.

The Szostak lab is interested in the chemical and physical processes that facilitated the transition from chemical evolution to biological evolution on the early earth. As a way of exploring these processes, our laboratory is trying to build a synthetic cellular system that undergoes Darwinian evolution. Our view of what such a chemical system would look like centers on a model of a primitive cell, or protocell, that consists of two main components: a self-replicating genetic polymer and a self-replicating membrane boundary. Such a system should, given time and the right environment, begin to evolve in a Darwinian fashion, potentially leading to the spontaneous emergence of genomically encoded catalysts and structural molecules.