Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

FP7

CAREX Report Summary

Project ID: 211700
Funded under: FP7-ENVIRONMENT
Country: United Kingdom

Final Report Summary - CAREX (Coordination action for research activities on life in extreme environments)

Executive summary:

The study of Life in extreme environments (LEXEN) is an emerging area of research and one where Europe arguably already takes international leadership in certain topics. The science has enormous relevance for our knowledge of the diversity and environmental limits of life on this planet as well as of the novel strategies employed by life forms to survive and reproduce at these limits. Products obtained from organisms in extreme environments have substantial potential for use in industrial applications. CAREX (coordination action for research on LEXEN) is a Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) project funded by the European Commission (EC) and coordinated by British Antarctic Survey, Natural Environment Research Council, United Kingdom. The project is a truly interdisciplinary initiative covering all life forms existing in all known extreme environments on Earth, as well as research interests in extraterrestrial life. The project set challenging objectives of establishing a coherent community from disparate groups of scientists across Europe researching LEXEN on Earth (and elsewhere), developing a strategic research agenda for Europe in the field of LEXEN research, facilitating networking / knowledge exchange, and building links to funding agencies, Small and medium-sized enterprise (SME)'s, science coordination organisations and researchers / agencies outside Europe to make LEXEN science more effective. CAREX has operated from 1 January 2008 to 30 June 2011 and over these 42 months has produced over 40 substantial deliverables. Amongst LEXEN scientists, a major success of the project has been the establishment for the first time of a strong community identity that has stimulated many new research collaborations and opportunities for exchange. Through a series of workshops the community has successfully identified major cross-cutting themes accessible to all that will support major contributions to fundamental biological theory and a more coordinated approach to funding for future LEXEN research. The resulting strategic roadmap for LEXEN research in Europe has provided a valuable product that the community has been able to bring to discussions with agencies and private enterprise, as well as offering a LEXEN dimension to biodiversity and climate change issues for policy makers. The roadmap highlights the important role of enabling technologies and infrastructure for successful LEXEN research and includes important recommendations to maintain the interdisciplinarity and multidisciplinarity of LEXEN research in future. The coherence of both the community and the roadmap has resulted in the project acquiring status as a European representative / partner with science organisations such as COSPAR, and many institutions outside Europe such as National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Astrobiology Institute and JAMSTEC (Japan).

There has been substantial focus on early career researchers in the process of capacity building. Transfer of knowledge (ToK) grant rounds, active involvement in CAREX workshops and forums and a large summer school have broadened and strengthened the experience of many young researchers. Many will be at the first CAREX international conference, held in Dublin in October 2011. The community as a whole is now developing new post-CAREX initiatives that will take LEXEN research to a new level across Europe over this decade.

Project context and objectives:

Extreme environments have recently been defined (ESF report, 2007) as having one or more environmental parameters showing values permanently close to the lower or upper limits known for life in its various forms. Within the diversity of environments on Earth the extreme environments can therefore be considered end-members of a continuum of environmental conditions. This might give the impression that such systems are marginal to the global system. However terrestrial, marine, polar and deep sub-surface extreme environments are distributed across the globe and these include environments that are some of the largest in areal terms (e.g. permafrost) and also in terms of biomass (e.g. the deep sub-surface). Many of these environments are difficult to access (deep ocean hydrothermal vents, the deep sub-surface) and some are known but yet to be explored in any detail (e.g. sub-glacial lakes). Certain target extreme environments are extraterrestrial (Mars, Europa) and are currently investigated through the study of planetary analogue extreme environments on Earth.

Some extreme environments have been exploited for mineral products (salt pans, marine manganese nodules) and many (e.g. hot springs, hydrothermal vents, saline lakes and polar environments) are now yielding new biotechnological products from their biological communities whilst yet others (e.g. expanding hot deserts, saline soils) are a threat to existing human activities, such as agriculture and settlements. Certain extreme environments (e.g. permafrost and polar oceans) are critical components of the global carbon cycle as they are reservoirs for sequestration of carbon dioxide and, in the case of permafrost, methane. Climate change is a threat to some extreme environments and major changes in these environments (thawing permafrost and release of methane, acidification and warming reducing the role of polar oceans as a sump for global CO2) would have profound consequences for humanity.

The study of LEXEN offers insights to how life originally emerged and developed on the early Earth. It follows that these same systems can be used as planetary analogues in our search for extra-terrestrial life. Much of the research knowledge being applied to planning exploration of other planetary bodies in our solar system and interpreting the results being returned from locations such as Mars and the moons of Saturn and Jupiter has been obtained from studying extreme environments on planet Earth. The life found in extreme environments offer some of the most exciting insights to how life has evolved on this planet (the tree of life) and the variety of mechanisms for resistance and the bioenergetic pathways that exist in biological systems. Studying life at limits contributes to our understanding of fundamental biological principles and the resilience of life itself to external stressors.

The 'Investigating LEXEN' (ILEE) initiative developed in 2005 with the support of the European Science Foundation was the precursor to CAREX as it identified in its 2007 report that:

1. there was considerable interest in extremophile and extreme environment research across Europe;
2. European researchers already had international leadership in certain areas and there were significant opportunities for future European leadership through contributions to climate change and biodiversity studies and biotechnological and industrial applications;
3. there was no clearly established community identity across Europe and relatively limited interactions between research groups even with respect to a particular environment;
4. there was no overall framework to the research across extreme environments;
5. there was a need for parallel development of enabling technologies to facilitate research in these difficult environments.

A proposal (CAREX - coordination action for research on LEXEN) was therefore submitted to the first round of FP7 as a coordination action to address these points and the outstanding marks it received illustrated the widely recognised relevance and significance of the topic and the appropriateness of the projects approach. The project was to tackle the issues of enhancing coordination of life in extreme environment research in Europe by providing networking and knowledge exchange opportunities, building a community identity and common purpose, and developing a strategic European roadmap for LEXEN (LEXEN) research. The project was to be multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary and balanced in its recognition of the different groups of LEXEN researchers. Key actions framing the project activities would be scientific priority setting, knowledge exchange, development of accessible databases and the creation of an information hub. The project would have a small (9) core of partners that would manage and lead the various activities, a larger (ultimately 50+) group of associated partners providing expertise to the core group and then even larger numbers (ultimately approximately 200) of 'correspondents' and 'observers' who represented the broader community and included a number of funding and research agencies and research institutions in non-European Union (EU) countries (e.g. United States, Canada, Japan, Australia, South Africa). All these individuals could contribute to, and take advantage of, the many activities organised by CAREX and the project would also became a substantial focus for accessing and supporting early career researchers (pre-tenure) involved in, or interested in, LEXEN research. The latter are the future for European science and need substantive support at this point in their careers.

Whilst there would be substantial focus on researchers there would also be activities directed at building links to funding agencies and establishing dialogue with SME's, particularly with respect to technology development and identifying relevant areas for interaction, as well as promoting extreme environment research to various groups, including the general public.

The significant objective of developing a strategic roadmap for LEXEN research in Europe was to be addressed in Work package two (WP2) through a series of four significant workshops addressing model extreme environments, enabling technologies and infrastructures, and model organisms, and the fourth workshop taking a synthesis role. A further meeting was organised to bring together a writing team for the final roadmap document. These large workshops would provide venues for debate on the selected themes and help identify the priorities against these themes to take forward to the synthesis workshop. Each of the three main workshops would generate as deliverables a report and published proceedings whilst the synthesis workshop would have the draft roadmap as its outcome.

A community needs common methodologies and procedures for reference and effective interaction so under WP3 one laboratory and two field intercomparison events were proposed to allow those involved in LEXEN research to come together and share experience and debate field and laboratory based issues. All three activities would have reports as deliverables and these would feed into the roadmap synthesis process as well as helping further develop the CAREX community identity.

A further initiative to support a developing CAREX community was the organisation of several ToK award calls and a summer school. Both these activities were particularly targeted at the early career researchers as these represent the future of LEXEN research and they need to be exposed to the breadth of this science area and the commonalities that link the science across different environments. A total of three ToK calls were projected during the project and each of the grantees would generate a report. For each call these were to be assembled into a publication deliverable. The Summer School would provide opportunities for early career researchers to develop their own network of contacts and to interact with experienced LEXEN researchers. They would be expected to organise their own discussion groups and prepare reports which would subsequently be combined with an overall meeting report as a set of proceedings from the summer school.

WP1 of the CAREX project was focused on establishing a set of databases of LEXEN scientists, projects and infrastructure. These were to be populated using data from online surveys developed by the CAREX team. Analysis of these databases, and those associated with the international environment and European funding agency priorities (under WP4) , would then inform the discussions and reports emerging from the main workshops and other forums and feed into the roadmap process as well as into discussions of post-CAREX activities in the final forum. The creation of the databases was seen as early deliverables feeding into later activities and reports on these surveys were identified as further deliverables.

Linking of the LEXEN community with other relevant research projects, with SME's and with funding and research institutions, both within and outside Europe, was to be facilitated through a series of targeted forum meetings by WP4 and by opening the major workshops to these external organisations to attend as observers. Each of the forum activities would generate a meeting report and some, such as the international and European funding agency forums, would be preceded by a survey to assist the meeting discussions and generate further report deliverables. A final Forum in the last weeks of the project was proposed to pull together the key players from all the workshops, forums, and summer school and produce a report that included a CAREX Declaration.

Tying the project together was the task of WP5 which was to develop a CAREX logo, establish a substantial website as an information hub to communicate CAREX activities and achievements, and produce both a promotional leaflet and a series of newsletters to inform the community of our activities. All of these products were identified as deliverables to the project but would also be critical to establishing the CAREX identity, bringing the community together and promoting CAREX to the outside world.

Management of the project was given to WP6 with deliverables that included establishing a consortium agreement and terms of reference for the steering committee. The project was coordinated and chaired by the NERC-BAS partner but the project office was located at the ESF partner to take advantage of the European networking and linkages already present at the foundation.

CAREX objectives

1. establish interactions, coordinate activities and promote a community identity for European researchers involved in LEXEN research activities (addressed through WP1 and WP5);
2. identify the current status of LEXEN research within Europe and develop an integrated assessment of European capability and current shortcomings in the field of LEXEN research (addressed through WP1 and WP2);
3. enhancing the scientific knowledge of LEXEN on key issues (addressed through WP2 and WP3);
4. identify the priorities for future LEXEN research within Europe and develop a strategic roadmap to inform European and national funding organisations (addressed through WP2);
5. identify the environment-specific technological challenges and infrastructure necessary to support LEXEN research priorities (addressed through WP1 and WP2);
6. harmonise protocols and approaches used in LEXEN research and promote knowledge transfer across the community through networking opportunities (addressed through WP3);
7. promote the development of young career scientists through targeted activities. (addressed through WP2, WP3);
8. establish an information hub to support and develop a dynamic European LEXEN community (addressed through WP1 and WP5);
9. identify opportunities to develop linkages across the range of relevant European programmes and provide forums for these and European stakeholders to interact with the LEXEN community (addressed through WP3 and WP4);
10. develop linkages with international organisations / programmes and targeted non EU-scientists to establish an international context for European LEXEN activities (addressed through WP2 and WP4);
11. develop a project literature through a series of reference scientific and policy-oriented publications and publication, where practical, in international peer review journals. (addressed through WP5).

Project results:

Main results of the coordination action

The project was intended to first establish a coherent community from the disparate and poorly coordinated groups of researchers distributed across the many different forms of extreme environment. This included providing opportunities for early career researchers to be part of the community and to acquire valuable skills and experience. It was also to develop a roadmap for European LEXEN research to move forward with priorities established that cross cut the different environments and disciplines, including involvement of enabling technologies which are so critical to modern LEXEN research. A third element of the project was to begin building an information set on the demography of the community, availability of infrastructure and the attitudes and priorities of funding agencies and commercial organisations with respect to LEXEN research and exploitation. This could feed into the management and strategic planning of a LEXEN community and supply content for a website to enable the community to communicate externally with its various stakeholders.

Many of the activities organised in CAREX contributed to the development of a coherent community identity. From the outset we carefully avoided favouring any particular environment or research area and although some areas had more contributors to a particular CAREX activity, such as a workshop, than other areas everyone was made aware of being on the same level and could contribute equally.

Building the community

The first priorities were to establish a website for CAREX (with a unique URL - www.carex-eu.org), create a project logo and develop a promotional leaflet so that we could begin to create an identity.

The website provides the basis for an information hub and has underpinned all our other many activities within the project. It was designed to be actively used by the community rather than simply an archival repository and we have been gratified to observe that website usage has averaged around 600 unique visitors per month since active (July 2008).

All the administration and organisation of the various workshops, forums, field trips, grant calls and the summer school were channelled through the website and the site provided news, an event calendar, listings of job opportunities and a location to download all the CAREX reports.

The website was also the location of CAREX related databases on researchers, projects and infrastructure. These were developed using questionnaires mailed to a large address list originally established during the ESF initiative (ILEE) that was the precursor to CAREX and enhanced subsequently. Each CAREX workshop also had the questionnaires which contributed further to the information set. The researcher database was regularly referenced by the community looking for potential partners and an analysis of the data revealed interesting statistics which then informed our strategic planning within the project. A particularly striking statistic was the age distribution which indicated that whilst there was a substantial breadth to the age distribution the respondents were dominated by senior researchers in the 55-60+ age range and that we needed to work from the outset to establish an environment to encourage early career researchers to participate in the project and become drawn into LEXEN research.

The strategy for encouraging early career researchers was to provide support for them to attend all the CAREX events and network with the participants, present research and contribute comments to the workshop dialogue, bid for opportunities for travel grants to further their research experience and to attend the CAREX summer school. Many researchers tend to follow a relatively narrow path of research experience but we in CAREX are committed to broadening research experience to include different disciplines and extreme environments. This will help develop a new generation with greater research flexibility and willingness to work at the interfaces of disciplines and environments. The various activities have been highly successful with steadily increasing numbers of applications for travel grants and for attendance of meetings. The CAREX international conference (October 2011, Dublin, Ireland) has substantial numbers of young researchers registered to attend. Our activities have attracted the attention of the Arctic science coordination organisation International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) who are funding up to ten young polar researchers to attend the conference where we will also host a panel based Question and answer (Q&A) session with senior researchers mentoring young scientists.

The ToK travel grants have been highly successful in allowing young researchers to visit a host institution, often from a different disciplinary area or even different environment and learn new skills to bring back to their institute. In all cases the grantees from each funding round have written reports that have been collated and edited for publication by CAREX (all available on the CAREX website) and many have subsequently made presentations of their work at conferences. The transfer of new skills benefits the home institution in building their portfolio of in-house capabilities and the exchange has frequently resulted in subsequent collaborations between the institutions.

The summer school offered a unique opportunity to assemble in a remote alpine research station with young researchers from various EU and non-EU countries with differing research backgrounds and environment interests. The young researchers had an opportunity to develop and manage their own discussions alongside presentations from both senior and young scientists and mentoring opportunities. The objective has been to build a network of young researchers across the range of LEXEN research and these various activities proved effective in building this network.

A substantial achievement of CAREX was the organisation and implementation of three substantial international workshops addressing large cross-cutting topics: model environments, model organisms and enabling technologies and infrastructure. These were all heavily subscribed, despite their clear focus on establishing recommendations and priorities for research and parallel technological support to feed into development of a strategic roadmap rather than directly discussing science. Nevertheless substantial scientific interchange and networking occurred outside the meeting rooms, often between researchers from different study environments who had never crossed paths before. In each workshop participants commented in their feedback of the remarkable opportunities for networking afforded by these events, their enthusiasm to see CAREX develop into a coherent long term organisation and their commitment to a framework for future research that would maintain the CAREX identity and vision through cross-cutting activities involving the whole community.

The CAREX workshops have been unique in the willingness to consider all organisms in all extreme environments, putting enabling technologies on a similar footing to environmental research, developing a united voice for the community and bring organisations outside Europe into European led initiatives. The National Science Foundation in the United States had identified LEXEN as an important research area but were unable to bring their diverse community together so they were early supporters of CAREX and immediately became observers. Other non-EU nations and organisations attending the workshops have also been impressed by the capabilities within CAREX to address the whole area of LEXEN research in a coordinated manner and have joined the project as observers, including NASA Institute of Astrobiology, JAMSTEC (Japan), European Space Agency (ESA), Genome Canada, Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR), IASC and the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR).

The discussions in the margins of these workshops have been remarkably fruitful with large numbers of new collaborations being reported after each meeting. In one case the clear potential of bringing these previously unrelated groups of scientists together to address common issues resulted in a decision to produce a book on extreme environment research ('Life at extremes: environments, organisms and strategies for survival'. Editor: Elanor Bell, published by CABI in late 2011). This book involved almost exclusively participants at the workshops and was edited by one of these participants (Dr Elanor Bell, Scottish Association for Marine Sciences, United Kingdom). Funding of this publication has been part supported by CAREX as it constitutes a valuable source of current knowledge of LEXEN science and represents a substantial CAREX community activity.

The effect of these workshops in developing community identity was complemented by several further events. One such was the Project Forum where existing European projects on LEXEN themes could assemble for the first time to discuss their activities, exchange experiences and consider the issues influencing effective research in extreme environments. Other examples were the two field inter-comparison events, held in Rio Tinto, Spain (a highly acidic environment) and Iceland (hot springs and cold glacier forelands) where new and existing field instrumentation could be operated in similar environments and experience gained from comparisons. The Rio Tinto event focussed largely on astrobiological analogues and involved both ESA and NASA researchers whilst the Iceland event was concerned with both astrobiological analogues and early life on Earth. The latter was facilitated through the involvement of ArchEnviron - a research network focussing on studies of the early Archaean environment, with additional contributions again from ESA and from. The success of the Rio Tinto meeting led to this diverse group producing a paper for publication in a peer reviewed journal. ('Multidisciplinary integrated field campaign to an acidic Martian Earth analogue with astrobiological interest: Rio Tinto'. Journal of Astrobiology, Volume 10, Special Issue 03) published in July 2011.

A further workshop was organised to examine laboratory procedures and to consider best practice as well as developing ideas for future CAREX directions that could feed into the strategic roadmap planning. Again these workshops provided opportunities for bottom-up contributions by individuals and organisations to the structuring of CAREX and helped further cement the basis for a CAREX community identity.

Whilst activities within CAREX provided the stimulus for community development, we also looked outward to bring CAREX to the larger international community and establish the place of our community in international activities. This was achieved through individuals making presentations on CAREX to numerous international fora around the world and CAREX partners organising and chairing sessions on LEXEN research at international conferences. We also took opportunities to represent European LEXEN science at events organised by international bodies such as COSPAR and IASC and national bodies such as NASA. And of course we took the substantial step of doing the groundwork for our own international CAREX conference which will be held in Dublin in October 2011.

The use of media such as regular newsletters, web news and event announcements and publicity leaflets has reinforced our activities. Overall, the steering committee believes that we have achieved our ambition of bringing together disparate previously unconnected groups from across Europe and establishing in the minds of our European research community a coherent identity with strong linkages and a clear understanding of what LEXEN research represents across the continent. At the final forum meeting in May 2011 a cross section of CAREX partners confirmed the view of the steering committee and made it clear that they want to move forward with the CAREX vision in the coming years. Internationally we are also recognised as a substantial entity with capabilities and knowledge that are valued by our non-EU colleagues. Indeed the recognition of CAREX has sometimes led to the assumption that it is a full European institution with hard resources rather than simply a short term coordination action. This reflects the strong commitment that outsiders experience on encountering the CAREX community and augers well for its future.

Building a strategic plan for European LEXEN research

Establishing a community has been a significant achievement but that community needs a structure to focus its science productively and make best use of the resources and capabilities now available. The CAREX community also needs to showcase the relevance of LEXEN research and so facilitate discussion with funding agencies and policy makers on future directions and support of research in this area. A major objective of the CAREX project was to deliver a strategic roadmap for European LEXEN research and substantial CAREX resources were therefore directed to achieving this during the course of the project. Over 220 researchers contributed to four substantial workshops to provide the material used by a small writing team to prepare the final documentation. Along this road each of the three main workshops produced a meeting report whilst the oral and poster presentations were collated and edited into meeting proceedings and all of these were published in print and digital form (accessible through the website). The fourth workshop was tasked with synthesising the outcomes of the three main workshop and to incorporate contributions from other CAREX events, notably the field and laboratory inter-comparison activities.

There has historically been a lack of any overarching structure in LEXEN science, but some areas such as hydrothermal vent research for example had established a significant amount of structure with international coordination and a degree of community. This structure had little interaction with other areas of LEXEN research and so limited flexibility in bidding for resources and in making best use of the resources it held. Other areas had no formal structure and groups operated relatively independently resulting in difficulties in obtaining resources and in selling the case for their research.

CAREX therefore had to start from a low base to ensure all groups were incorporated. It had to also work with science areas where there was already some organisation to ensure that these could also be incorporated, that the best science across the LEXEN field was being addressed and the most effective use made of resources. The earlier work of the ESF supported ILEE initiative provided a starting point in highlighting major topics to focus the discussions in each workshop. ILEE identified model environments and model organisms, together with enabling technologies and infrastructure, as key areas in building a research framework for LEXEN science.

In the model environments workshop, breakout groups were initially created to discuss polar, marine, terrestrial and space environments. These broad groups addressed a series of questions that explored the variety of extreme situations within their range of environments and the stressors influencing the environments. The outcomes of these discussions were shared with the other groups before the participants were redistributed in new groups to address cross cutting issues relevant to extreme environments. This was the first, but not the last, workshop to explore the issue of what constitutes 'extreme' and establishing a definition that could be accepted across the community. It was acknowledged that the term was an anthropomorphically referenced descriptor and that certain organisms were not necessarily being stressed by living in what humans (and many other organisms) would consider extreme. Indeed these same organisms were often severely stressed when placed in conditions that most organisms (including Man) considered benign. Examples include economically important organisms such as Antarctic krill which survive only in the very narrow annual temperature range (-1.9 to +2 degrees of Celsius) of the polar oceans. The recent warming of the Southern Ocean in summer by less than 1 degree is a major threat to this key species in the polar ocean food web. The definition of extreme therefore appertains to life at its limits not necessarily just the environment itself. Changing environments (particularly rapid change) impose stress on all organisms and so there is particular relevance for extreme environments in the current situation of widespread environmental change.

A second workshop on enabling technologies and infrastructure timed to follow on immediately after the first was organised to ensure that participants in the model environments workshop could also contribute to the debate in the technologies workshop. This worked very effectively, particularly in giving due recognition that one of the major factors behind the rapid progress now being made in LEXEN research is the substantial advances occurring in technologies that facilitate research in these often remote, hazardous environments. The development of autonomous underwater vehicles, new sensors and clean drilling facilities have revolutionised LEXEN science whilst the rapid advances in molecular biology have provided vital tools for exploring often completely unknown microbial communities in these extreme environments. The technological requirements and infrastructure needs for future LEXEN research were identified in this second workshop and there was considerable emphasis placed on ensuring that these advances occurred in parallel with the science if there was to be effective progress maintained. Much of this technology is leading edge and this focus within the LEXEN research arguably helps stimulate advances across the whole technological field much as space research has provided a stimulus in the past.

The third workshop focussed on model organisms which are species extensively studied to understand particular biological phenomena, with the expectation that discoveries made in the model organism will provide insights to the workings of other organisms. The fruit fly, Drosphila melongaster and the bacterium Escherichia coli are famous examples used in many laboratories worldwide. However many extremophile organisms also have particular features that could potentially contribute to a broader understanding of life on Earth and address fundamental biological theory. This workshop therefore focussed on identifying the range of potential model organisms and attempting to establish priorities for model organism research. There were wide-ranging discussions using working groups to address different sets of organisms and the outputs were synthesised as a meeting report.

The outputs from all three main workshops and from other CAREX meetings were brought together at a fourth (Synthesis) meeting where the participants largely comprised the chairs, rapporteurs and significant discussants from the early CAREX meetings. The objective was to develop a synthesis of these earlier outcomes and to then produce a draft strategic report addressing both future European research priorities in extreme environments and the technological developments needed to facilitate the research. It would also identify current shortcomings in European capability, particularly in respect to technology and specialised infrastructure. The discussions were challenging as previous workshops had produced considerable material and the objective was to define cross-cutting themes that could encompass the community interests but also focus research into acknowledged key areas. The group finally identified four major themes (or priority areas) and several key topics (or questions) under each theme. The group further made suggestions for relevant research to undertake within each topic (question). There was also extensive discussion of the technological and infrastructure requirements necessary to facilitate this research and a series of significant recommendations emerged.

The four priority areas and key questions identified in the CAREX strategic roadmap for Europe:

Theme 1: Contributions of LEXEN to biogeochemical cycles and responses to environmental change
1. What was the role of LEXEN in defining the biogeochemical characteristics of the Earth?
2. What is the contribution of biogeochemical processes in extreme environments to the modern Earth system?
3. How resilient is LEXEN to environmental change?

Theme 2: Stressful environments - responses, adaptation and evolution
1. How do organisms escape the stresses of extreme environments?
2. Are there unique / common paths for responses to stresses?
3. How have proteins and genomes evolved under extreme conditions?
4. How diverse are the community-level responses to stresses?

Theme 3: Biodiversity, bioenergetics and interactions in extreme environments
1. What characterises biodiversity in extreme environments?
2. How diverse are bioenergetic processes in extreme environments?
3. What characterises the nature and extent of biotic and abiotic interactions in extreme environments?

Theme 4: Life and habitability
1. What are the physico-chemical boundary conditions for habitability?
2. Where are the terrestrial analogues for putative extraterrestrial habitats?
3. What bio-signatures facilitate life detection?

The priority areas and topics for future investigation outlined in the roadmap offer a basis for developing international interdisciplinary collaborative programmes over the coming decade that could be relevant to most biological research. The technology and infrastructure recommendations address many of the current shortcomings in European facilities and includes an important suggestion to create a Virtual European centre for LEXEN research to build on the progress made during the CAREX programme and provide a focus for long-term European initiatives including infrastructure access, LEXEN databases, training, and the development of common hypotheses, common infrastructures and effective synthesis. The establishment of such a centre could provide a European response to the NASA Institute for Astrobiology in the United States and JAMSTEC in Japan, for example, and could help facilitate greater international collaboration. The report further illustrates how LEXEN research can contribute fundamental knowledge for life on Earth (and beyond) and can be a source of new applications of commercial / industrial / societal value as well as contribute cutting edge technology for transfer to other science areas.

The roadmap was published and distributed widely in early 2011 and there was significant media interest at its launch. Google statistics indicated over 14 000 hits for the press release alone. The CAREX community also responded very positively to the proposed themes and there has been considerable enthusiasm to take this first roadmap for LEXEN research forward through a series of post-CAREX initiatives which are described later in this report.

Building connections from CAREX

With the development of a strong community identity and the creation of a coherent research plan for taking LEXEN research forward, CAREX can be considered well placed to build connections to, and begin dialogue with, other relevant programmes, international organisations, funding agencies and the commercial sector. There was a considerable effort expended in addressing this objective, largely tasked to CAREX WPs 3 and 4 but involving the expertise and connections of most of the core partners and various associate partners at some point.

Many projects and programmes across Europe became linked to CAREX through involvement of their researchers and coordinators in CAREX activities. For example, links were developed at an early stage with European led programmes addressing subglacial research (Subglacial Lake Ellsworth Exploration, SLE), polar biology (the SCAR Evolution and Biodiversity of Antarctica programme), marine hydrothermal vent research (ChEss, Inter-ridge) and astrobiology (European Astrobiology Network Association). Field intercomparison activities drew in groups such as the ESF supported ArchEnviron (Archaean Environmental Studies) programme investigating early life on Earth, ESA project EXOGEOLAB and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the Unites States. Larger organisations such as the Office of Polar Programs at NSF, JAMSTEC in Japan, the Climate Research Centre (CRC) in Australia and the NASA Institute of Astrobiology were also brought on board as observers and through contributing to CAREX forum events. Other international organisations such as COSPAR (Committee for Space Research) have now recognised CAREX as a valuable link to European astrobiological researchers (particularly with respect to planetary analogue research) and are involving CAREX in their planning meetings. The linkages outlined above have not been formalised as the CAREX project only exists for 3 years but the connections made can be activated as the European LEXEN community takes on the roadmap and other opportunities established during CAREX.

A particular area of interest to CAREX was the establishment of a dialogue with funding bodies. Many agencies would state that their science framework already includes opportunities to undertake research in science areas covered by CAREX and our published survey of their priorities illustrates this point. We also established however that until CAREX appeared there was little recognition that LEXEN research could be coherent and that cross-cutting science and effective management of resources across projects could bring significant return. The typical approach was one of responding primarily to bottom-up applications on a case by case basis with little or no reference to what had gone before or how this research and resources could be linked to other projects. The survey also indicated a lack of funding through directed programmes, though the Natural Environment Research Council in United Kingdom have a large scheme (using theme action plans) based on this funding model. Directed programmes are to an extent top-down influenced but have normally arisen through a community consultation process so there is a bottom-up contribution. They do have the advantage of allowing the establishment of a group of projects that have to address common objectives or questions and have a programme management to ensure this occurs effectively.

The availability of a strategic roadmap and the evidence of a substantial community across Europe have provided funding agencies with a new perspective to consider. CAREX presented this perspective at a workshop for EU and non-EU agencies and ministries where we attracted enthusiastic representation from, for example, USA, Japan, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology. Regrettably, European funding bodies, who can also meet as a group through the EuroHORCS forum, were under-represented and it proved difficult to secure the presence of senior representatives from those that did attend. CAREX management took a flexible approach and subsequently arranged to meet further national agencies directly through visiting their headquarters where more productive dialogue was often possible and through teleconferences.

All these discussions with agencies have provided a means for exploring various mechanisms for establishing trans-national calls in the area of LEXEN research. The results of our various dialogues has been the preparation of an outline structure on which the agencies can provide comment and give a basis a basis for further discussions that should lead in due course to an agreed mechanism for LEXEN funding calls. There has certainly been some enthusiasm, and even early offers of funding, from various agencies so we are hopeful for the future. A formal meeting of CAREX management with several national funding agencies has been organised in the margins of the CAREX international conference in Dublin (October 2011) to consider the CAREX outline for a trans-national call. It should also be recognised that our activities have also brought a coherent view of LEXEN research to the attention of these funders and this will hopefully influence their national prioritisation of research areas and interest them in the various initiatives that will emerge from our community in the post-CAREX period.

We have been successful in involving technologists in our activities and have certainly acknowledged their significance for LEXEN research, including substantial recommendations for technology and infrastructure developments in our strategic roadmap publication. A number of the technologists attending CAREX workshops have been from SME's and they have clearly been interested in viewing the opportunities for their organisations in this emerging field of LEXEN research. We identified SME linkages as a target for CAREX but as a group they showed limited interest in contributing to a formal dialogue between industry and academia and it took some time to establish a productive theme for an SME forum. We eventually organised an Applications Forum where academics with past experience of identifying or producing bio-products with commercial potential debated with SME representatives how to accelerate progress in the exchange of information between the academic and private sectors as well as within both sectors. The discussion addressed how to build bridges between academic and private research sectors and to identify the hurdles in exploiting extremophile products. This conversation allowed academics to describe the most topical research issues relating to extremophile organisms and for SME's to outline the type of products they were currently interested in seeing academics find and the science areas they felt were most productive commercially. This outcome does offer a mechanism for future much closer interactions between SME's and the academic LEXEN community which we will foster through post-CAREX activities.

CAREX IN FIGURES Numerous events and initiatives have been organised and coordinated by CAREX since 2008.

Workshops
- 3 disciplinary workshops and 1 synthesis workshop;
- 220 participants from 28 countries attended the four events;
- 128 written contributions submitted in preparation of these events via online consultations;
- 51 oral presentations given and 62 posters presented.

Potential impact:

Impact and future perspectives

With its roadmap, CAREX has provided a solid basis and structure for future multidisciplinary LEXEN activities.

A potential post-CAREX initiative supported by the European LEXEN community is the proposed development of a trans-national funding initiative. During the course of the CAREX project preliminary discussions were held with a number of selected funding agencies, both within the funding agency forum meeting and externally. These discussions suggested that there was interest in an initiative and the most popular topic to surface was that of polar extreme environments. The agencies were all of the opinion that they wanted to develop a rather light and flexible administrative model, involving a small number of funding agencies. Early interest was shown by CNRS (France), CNR, PNRA (Italy), FWF (Austria) and RCN (Norway) and discussions will continue with other agencies in Finland and Germany as well as with the European Polar Board.

The research strategy will also assist in establishing the central theme for a COST Action proposal being developed by the CAREX community for the September 2011 COST round. The science behind the action would include organismal and community level studies of physiology, gene expression and biochemistry to address responses to stress, adaptations and evolution whilst the action itself would fund the relevant players to come together for activity planning, project management and scientific networking in support of the science as well as providing a platform to communicate the science outcomes. This topic is truly cross-cutting, leading edge science and would be relevant to most of the CAREX community. Additional initiatives e.g. a Marie Curie RTN proposal involving diverse CAREX community laboratories across Europe are also being considered.

One of the most requested means of promoting CAREX and reinforcing its community identity was an international CAREX conference. Whilst not explicitly identified in the original description of work, the idea of a conference clearly falls within the broad remit of building the community identity and facilitating networking. The research strategy developed within the Roadmap has thus been utilised to identify the structure and session themes for the first CAREX international conference, which will be held in Dublin in October 2011. This event should be attended by approximately 130 participants, the presentations (over 100 submitted abstracts) at the conference will be considered for publication and the CAREX management are investigating possibilities with publishers.

It was agreed at the Final Forum event that the cross-cutting research strategy outlined in the CAREX Roadmap structure and which represents our most significant IP output will form the conceptual framework for a second CAREX book to follow the book edited by Dr Eleanor Bell and published by CABI in 2011. A steering group and chief editor are being assembled and it is anticipated that this important second book will likely be published in late 2013 by Cambridge University Press as part of the British Ecological Society's 'Ecological Reviews' series.

Dissemination activities and exploitation of results

The target audience for CAREX is varied, including the European research community, international science and science coordination organisations, national and regional funding agencies, SME's and the general public. Over the period of the CAREX project all of these audiences have been addressed and there are plans emerging to continue the dialogue post-CAREX.

Web presence

At the heart of the CAREX dissemination activities is the publically accessible website which has, over the past three years, provided a broad range of products and information relating not only to CAREX activities but the broader LEXEN context. Access to all the events organised, surveys undertaken and reports published by CAREX are available through the site as well as extensive information on the CAREX structure, funding and job opportunities and access to relevant literature. The site has succeeded on several levels. The collected statistics on unique visitor numbers indicate over 23,500 visitors since the site was launched and an average of over 600 visits per month. It has also provided a one-stop shop for the CAREX community (and stakeholders) to access information, and here the database of LEXEN researchers has been very popular as a means of finding partners for research collaborations. It has helped with the management of the project and will now provide a focus for developing plans emerging from CAREX. It is intended that the website be maintained by ESF until the new activities are established and can take on its management.

Publications and articles

CAREX has been responsible for a substantial number of publications to widely disseminate the results of its activities and fifteen of these reports have been designed, set and printed in full colour to provide strong visual impact in communicating our outputs.

- Publication 1: CAREX ToK Grants 2008 reports.
- Publication 2: Identification of model ecosystems in extreme environments - Workshop proceedings (only online).
- Publication 3: Priorities for environment-specific technological developments and infrastructures - Workshop proceedings (only online).
- Publication 4: CAREX ToK grants 2009 reports.
- Publication 5: Identification of model organisms in extreme environments - Workshop proceedings (only online).
- Publication 6: Research on LEXEN and laboratory procedures.
- Publication 7: Identification of model organisms in extreme environments - Workshop report.
- Publication 8: Identification of model ecosystems in extreme environments - Workshop Report.
- Publication 9: CAREX roadmap for Research on LEXEN.
- Publication 10: CAREX ToK Grants 2010 reports (only online).
- Publication 11: CAREX summer school 2010 report (only online).
- Publication 12: CAREX Rio Tinto field campaign - Report.
- Publication 13: LEXEN projects - Forum report.
- Publication 14: Priorities for environment-specific technological developments and infrastructures - Workshop report.
- Publication 15: CAREX Iceland field campaign - Report.

Everyone on the CAREX address list received copies of these publications and the resources of ESF allowed CAREX to ensure that the reports were widely distributed across Europe. Other publications have been primarily for use within the project or community and to ensure that overall costs are managed effectively these have been desktop published within the CAREX project office at ESF.

The newsletters have provided a further valuable mechanism for communicating CAREX activities, both within the community and externally, and have helped contribute to the establishment of a clear CAREX identity, as has the promotional leaflet, particularly outside the community itself. Both the newsletters and the leaflet have been available through the website so there has been use of both digital and printed material to promote CAREX and educate various stakeholders as to the range of activities the project has organised.

A number of opportunities were taken to promote CAREX more widely, including articles in the Journal of Biological Research-Thessaloniki, the Government Gazette and Innovation International. Both of the latter publications were targeted at national and European Parliaments and various agencies with a total readership of over 30 000 in addition to being made available at major EC-organised conferences and workshops so bringing CAREX activities to a large and highly relevant readership.

The strategic roadmap report was marketed extensively with a substantial media effort. Articles appeared in key publications such as Research Fortnight (UK), Research Europe, AAAS Science Insider, International Astrobiology Newsletter and the Public Service Review: European Science and Technology. There were also over 14 000 hits on Google to access the press release.

The CAREX workshops and field inter-comparisons were stimulating environments and two publications have already emerged from these events. Out of the networking that occurred in the model environments workshop, agreement was reached to prepare a book on LEXEN research. This was edited by Dr Elanor Bell of the Scottish Association for Marine Science in UK and all the chapters were entirely written by CAREX participants. The book entitled Life at Extremes: environments, organisms and strategies for survival is structured around the various extreme environments on Earth and has been partly supported financially by the CAREX project. It will be published by CABI in the fourth quarter of 2011. The Rio Tinto field intercomparison activity was very effective in undertaking an integrated field study using a range of instrumentation intended for astrobiological research. The results have been published in a special issue of the peer reviewed international Journal of Astrobiology 'Multidisciplinary integrated field campaign to an acidic Martian Earth analogue with astrobiological interest: Rio Tinto'. Felipe Gomez et al. Journal of Astrobiology, Volume 10, Special Issue 03, published in July 2011.

The CAREX project has also received publicity through specific mention in two significant papers published in peer reviewed journals:
- Synergies of Earth science and space exploration (S.Y. Chung, P. Ehrenfreund, J.D. Rummel, N. Peter. Advances in Space Research, January 2010)
- The first metazoa living in permanently anoxic conditions (Roberto Danovaro et al., BMC Biology 2010, 8:30)

List of websites: www.carex-eu.org

Related information

Contact

Cynan ELLIS-EVANS, (Head of BAS Programme Office)
Tel.: +44-122-3221555
Fax: +44-122-3362616
E-mail
Record Number: 55055 / Last updated on: 2013-01-18
Information source: SESAM
Collaboration sought: N/A