With a flourish of the checkbook and a call for research proposals, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has summoned into prominence a virtually new discipline of science: astrobiology. When the principal investigators of the first 11 member organizations in NASA's Astrobiology Institute gathered on June 10-11 in Washington, D.C., no definition of astrobiology had been formally adopted and no director chosen. Many of the members had never met and knew little or nothing of each other's research proposals. But $9 million has been allocated through 1999 for funding of this interdisciplinary experiment, which may herald an important change in NASA's approach to investigating life in the universe.

The call for proposals drew 53 responses from universities, research institutes, federal laboratories, private firms, and even five overseas applicants. A panel of 31 independent selectors then chose the institute's member organizations for initial terms of five years. University members are: Harvard...

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