Eventually their work will be used to interpret data brought back from Mars by the six-wheel spacecraft Curiosity, which landed in August on a two-year mission to determine whether the environment was ever favorable for microbial life. Their work will also be used to prepare for future Mars missions.
"It may be that planets spent a long time in a microbial life condition and then only rarely evolved to advanced multicellular complex life," Johnson said. "That's one of the hypothesis we would test."
Edward Goolish, acting director at the NASA Astrobiology Institute, said the project supports one of NASA's major goals to find life or the potential for life elsewhere.
The project's results will provide a quantitative understanding of how life is preserved, he said.
"At the same time (Johnson's team is) contributing an immense amount to the understanding of life on Earth, which is equally important to astrobiology and science in general," he said.