LISA KALTENEGGER: I would like to introduce Lynn Rothschild, the next speaker. She's at NASA Ames. But she also an ancient-- adjunct professor at Brown and Santa Cruz.
And Lynn has so many hats, if you want. She's doing innovative things in biology. She's leading student teams to break through new biological technologies. And it's just a small breadth of what she does. And with me, she is a conspirator in bringing together astronomy and how we can take that biology, that we know the diversity on this world, and envision what that might look like on other stars.
And she just came here. And I talked about Jonathan getting that medal, the Cassini Medal, just recently. I just wanted to say that Lynn, she's a little late. But we will forgive her, because she just yesterday night, in Denver-- she got out before the snow apparently hit-- got the Isaac Asimov Award from the American Humanist Association. So in addition to being an incredible accomplished scientist, it's not the only hat that she's been wearing, and that she is wearing in this discussion.
And so it's my great pleasure to introduce Lynn.
LYNN ROTHSCHILD: Wow. Thank you so much, Lisa. It's very kind of you.
In fact, I had a completely different talk. I don't actually work in southern Indiana. I did for my master's. That's off a kilter. In fact, I had a completely different talk for you today about synthetic biology. But since the talk actually went rather well last night, I thought, you know what? Why not just play it again on the East Coast?
So here I am. Actually, I have to always preface talks in New York state by saying that I was actually born in New York state. I was born in New York City, which is where I get the funky accent from. So this is like being home for me.
Anyway, so since I was at the Humanist Society, it was a really great chance to step back and ask ourselves, what is this all about? What does it mean to be human? Why are we doing what we're doing?
And I think that there's sort of three different ways we're going to approach it today. One is looking at the intellectual revolutions. The other is looking at our place in space and our place in time. So that's where we're going to go in the next 20 minutes.
And just to set the clock back a little bit, when we really started the scientific era, we had these revolutions. I call it BC, the first one-- Before Copernicus. And at that time, people really thought of the heavens and the Earth. And these were separate. And it was people like Copernicus that really put the Earth and the other planets in the natural world, in the solar system. And now, of course, we know that there are many other planets in the solar system. Notice I tactfully left Pluto off.
And then you get to the next revolution, people like Descartes, who realized that our sun was not special either. That it was just one of many, many stars. And so now you've got these amazing photos from Hubble. Here's the Sombrero Galaxy. And then just because I was told this was a family event, here is a star nursery. So this is for the children.
And then, of course, my favorite as the token biologist at this meeting, the Darwinian revolution. Just think about it for a moment. If you've got the planets and the stars as part of the natural world, but not living organisms, you're really in a philosophically schizophrenic position. And so really what Darwin did, in essence, is say yes, biology is also part of the natural world. And that's a picture from Kenya.
But I maintain that we are now witnessing potentially the last great scientific revolution, because notice all those three revolutions were very Earth-centric-- our planet, our sun, our life. What if we now look out and say, you know what? Maybe it's not all about us. Maybe there's something else out there. Maybe we're part of a grand cosmos. And this is really what I think of as the astrobiology revolution.
Astrobiology really focuses around man's most profound and oldest questions. After you figure out what you're going to have for lunch and how you make babies, then you start to look up. And that's where all the astronomers come from. They look up and they wonder, is there something else out there. People like me look around and say, where did this all come from? And other people are worried about the future.
And this is really what astrobiology's all about-- asking where we come from. Not whether we come from New York City or we come from California or wherever, but where do we come from as a species? Where do we come from as living organisms? How did we end up with the chemical environment to have a habitable planet? How do you have a habitable body? How do you end up with this galaxy in this universe? So it's really a very broad, enhanced picture of evolution.
Of course, the flip side is, where are we going? Just because we're here doesn't mean that the sun has stopped burning. It doesn't mean that the moon has stopped moving away from the Earth. All these things go on. Just because we're here, they haven't stopped.
Now, maybe someday, our descendants will figure out how to do this. I know there's been talk at NASA about rearranging the solar system, tweaking it at the edges and so on. I think our descendants will be doing things like that.
I just want to say-- and Pete knows this-- I've had an SRN for-- a service request for years to bring Europa into the orbit around the Earth, because it would make it a whole lot easier to study, and since the moon's going away anyway. I'm not getting good traction. And I think this is a really brilliant idea. But you know, it just goes to show that not every brilliant idea in the government's adopted.
And then last one is the one that everyone loves, and that's this question of are we alone. And this really is not just a scientific question about ourselves, but also a philosophical question. And so I'm going to focus primarily on that for the rest of the time here.
So let's step back for a moment and look up at the universe. We start with the Earth. And we ask, could this happen again? And this is the very first time in human history that we've been able to approach this question scientifically. It doesn't mean that lots of people haven't thought about it. But we're now able to approach this scientifically. So the question is, why now?
And in homage to this wonderful workshop that Lisa's put together, I'll say number one is the discovery of extrasolar planets. That is enormous, because now you've got habitable bodies, or potentially habitable bodies, that we're finding all over. And we in the grand scheme of things are only looking very close by. I mean, Bill, and Natalie, and all that-- the Kepler group and the various other groups out there that have found these extrasolar planets have really made this very much more likely in this whole thing.
Then the space missions. And I'm looking at all the people in the first row or two who I always think about when I show this slide, and now you're all sitting here. But it's so important. We're now able to go out. We've got Curiosity taking selfies of itself on Mars. I mean, how funky is that? We can go to these places. This is incredible.
And obviously, there have been enormous advances in biology as well. Molecular evolution. I remember when I was a grad student, I was very interested in the evolution of protozoa and algae. And you'd sit there on a Friday night at a group meeting, and you'd be poring over electron micrographs, and say, well, is this significant having this hair at the end of this flagellum or not? And at the end of the evening, after vociferous arguing, you all put up your hands and say of course, we'll never know. And you closed your books and you went home.
And the fact is now, being able to penetrate at this molecular level, we know with much greater degree of certainty what a deep evolution and, actually, recent evolution's all about. And then, of course, we know so much more about the diversity of life in extreme environments.
But beyond that, we now have one more tool that I would like to add in, and that's synthetic biology. And you'll see that starting to creep in. This is something that has really taken off worldwide in the last 10 or 15 years. Don't ask me the difference between molecular biology and genetic engineering and synthetic biology.
I think the best way to think about it is for literally millennia, we did descriptive chemistry. And then about 150 years ago, we started doing synthetic chemistry. It's the same thing in biology. For millennia, humans have looked around and described the natural world. We're now able to go in and do something synthetic.
So that's the revolutions. So now let's look a little bit about our perspective from space. Our good friend, Rusty Schweickart, who was one of the pilots for Apollo 11-- Apollo 9, excuse me, it's lack of sleep-- was one of the first to actually be able to go out on an EVA, go out of the spacecraft, and, tethered, looking back at the Earth. And I believe his experience has been virtually uniform among the astronauts-- the realization what a beautiful, fragile-- excuse the expression, I know I'm a little behind, being [INAUDIBLE] today-- pale blue dot. It's our home.
I'm sure, again, others in the speakers have had the same experience, being interviewed and asked, which is your favorite planet? And I think that they're very disappointed that I don't say something funky out there. But the fact is that my favorite planet's Earth. It's our home. It's this beautiful blue ball. And you look at it from space and it must seem all that much more beautiful.
And then here's a photograph from Apollo 8. So this is now from the moon's perspective. And it's starting to seem even more remote.
And then here's this really spectacular image that was taken by the Cassini team recently. Obviously, that's Saturn. What you don't see, obviously, is the Earth, that little tiny dot. Everyone you have ever known, everything that's ever happened, every Shakespearean novel, every war-- everything is that little tiny dot. And that's Saturn. We've got a lot farther to go. So it's not that we're insignificant. But we really do have to realize that we're one dot in this vast, vast universe.
So can we do the same sort of thing with time? Well, time is a little bit more circumscribed. We have some idea when the Big Bang was about, 13.8 billion years ago. And let's see. Whoops. Sorry, it should have been a video there. But you can imagine with the Big Bang was like. And if you can, you should be in the back of the line during the drinks.
Our Earth is about roughly a third the age of our universe, so about 4.568 to who knows, really. Let's not quibble about a few years among friends. But a lot of things have happened from a biological perspective during that time.
So it's very easy for someone like me to talk about all these times, but what do they really mean? For example, how long did it take for life to originate? When people are asked, they usually say, oh, it takes a long time. That planet is way too young or this star's going to burn out way too fast. You can't possibly have life there. Why not? Because it'll take too long for life to arise.
Well, how long does life take to arise? We have no idea. We can get some minimum idea, assuming that life hasn't come here from somewhere else. We have some rough idea of when life really appears in a very forceful way in this fossil record. It probably goes back a good deal before that.
We don't know if this was a quick-and-dirty thing. We don't know, when we figure this out some day, whether we'll be giving our students empty test tubes on Friday and asking them to come in Monday, and we'll grade them on the most creative life form. Maybe there's some trick that we just don't know-- a pinch of this or it's got to be done in the full moon.
As my colleague Dave [INAUDIBLE] says, it's probably a combinatorial chemistry problem. The last time he spoke in my class at Stanford-- he's a very modest man who works in the origin of life-- I said, so Dave, when do you think you will create life? And he said something that rather stunned me. He said, I may have already done it and thrown it away.
So I hadn't really thought about it. And that's really quite a stunning perspective. We don't check everything that we do. It's a combinatorial chemistry problem.
But the fact is there are a lot of very brilliant people working on this, and they've yet to create life. And even if they do, it doesn't prove in any way, shape, or form that that's what happened on planet Earth. It just gives you a route to creating life. And we could even spend the next two hours debating what life even is.
More than that, we only have one example. And so even if we knew exactly how long it took for life to arise on the Earth, that would be as arrogant as saying I read one book, and I don't care how wonderful your textbook is or how beautiful your Shakespearean sonnet. My favorite book happens Alice in Wonderland. But to say that you know everything about literature based on one book is insane. Even the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics will not give you an insight into the rest of literature.
But people are just as arrogant about life. They say, well, there's Earth, and therefore I know everything. That's ridiculous. That's incredibly arrogant.
And worse than that, life is an amalgamation of time scales. And what I mean by that is that there are all sorts of things that operate on different time scales going on in your body right at this very moment. So for example, to even get here and have the oxygen and so on, we're starting to talk about billions of years, the evolution of major taxa of millions of years, and so on-- and all the way down to fractions of a second. The thing is that we can't really imagine most of those.
This is the time scale that we can deal with, roughly a few seconds to 100, 200 or 300 years. We talk about things BC. We'll talk about Hannibal or Ramesses II or whatever. But it's very difficult for us to really understand, grasp 2,000 years or 3,000 years. And so I've gotten used to standing up here and talking about billions of years, if you'll excuse that being right here.
But the fact is that you go home now and again and say, what was I talking about? It's inconceivable. This is something that the human mind has enormous difficulty grasping, because we're used to dealing with things on our lifetime.
Now, there are other organisms that have very different perspectives. So here's the maximum plant lifespan in years. And it goes all the way from annuals to quaking aspen, which has a lifespan in these colonies of about 80,000 years. So they could conceive of things. Perhaps these quaking Aspen could conceive of a great deal more.
I actually put the onion down there at two years, because the award ceremony last night, The Onion actually got the award right after me. So I had to poke fun at The Onion. Someone's got to do that.
Anyway, you have all these different things going on. And it's frustrating, because we don't understand them. We don't want to sit around. And believe me neither, does NSF, or NIH, or NASA want to wait around for a billion or 2 billion-year experiment. They want something closer to one to three years. So can we circumvent some of this time issue?
And I submit that with synthetic biology, whether it's in the lab or-- here's us doing some molecular biology out in the field in Kenya. About 10 minutes later, there was a herd of hyenas that went through. That teaches you to clean up your lab pretty quickly. But we do have these experimental tools.
So you can do things-- I hate to say it's trivial. But it's gotten to be almost as trivial as mixing and matching. I think of it as like these children's flip toys. So could you imagine if I could have or you could have the ears of a bat, and the eyes of an owl, and the speed of a leopard, and on and on and on? We can do that at the microbial scale. We can start to do that with plants. There are, of course, a lot of ethical issues as you start to get into multicellular organisms, particularly mammals and so on. But we're starting to have the technology to do that.
So let's just say, for example, that we're trying to find life elsewhere. Oh, I'll pick on Jonathan. Jonathan tells me that it's such-and-such condition on Ganymede, which he and I have talked about a little bit before. And he says, can you find me a life form that can live there? And I said, whoa, we've got something that is so close, but just not quite. It's just about five degrees off or whatever.
And now he's going to learn what he says to me. So, Lynn, why don't you go make one for me? And the fact is that we can do this. We can make artificial extremophiles, as Lisa alluded to. I've been the faculty advisor for a Stanford-Brown iGEM team-- International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition, which is an undergraduate competitive competition, synthetic biology. Cornell certainly has a team.
And one third of my students in 2012 worked on, what they call the Hell Cell project. And I won't show you all the data, but suffice it to say that they came to me with about 25 different gene candidates that should give E. coli, which is this wimpy bacterium that lives in your gut, all sorts of superpowers. And you know very well that if you tell students you can't do it, they're just going to do it anyway. So you say, fine, whatever.
And they did it. Every one of them managed to engineer into an E. coli. And every one of them gave the E. coli some additional powers. Some, of course, were better than others. But the fact that these students were able to do this, undergraduates-- very good undergraduates-- but nonetheless undergraduates-- in the course of three months-- and this was a third of the team-- means that this is not something that's so far outside our grasp now.
And so now you can go back and look at places even in our solar system that are potential for life, the Venuses and-- well, obviously, we have life on Earth, and we're still using synthetic biology here to improve our own lives. Mars. Say, Ceres, Europa, Ganymede, Enceladus, Titan, on and on and on and out. We can start to close that gap between what we know about the habitats for life on Earth and what all the astronomers are telling us, and the planetary scientists, are out there. And so as Lisa alluded to, this is where we then mix and match and collaborate.
There may be lots of other things out there. I'm so pleased that no one else is showing this yet. I'm not sure why it's not working. But if you go online and download it, you will see all these wonderful orbits going on. And there's some really hokey music in the background.
But nonetheless, what this is showing you as of November-- I believe it's 2013-- the solar systems the Kepler had found. The solar systems. I mean, this is ridiculous, the amount of candidate places that we can now start to talk about. Maybe we'll even be able to create life de novo. I don't think that that's at all impossible. In fact, it in some way should be much easier than some of the other things I've been talking about. But yet, it hasn't been done yet.
But again, we know people who were Nobel prizes and so on and so forth working very hard on this. And so if you see this in the newspapers on Monday, that someone created life in the lab, don't ask for your money back. I'm warning you. There are people working on it. But at this point, we don't have any examples of it.
So I will have to confess at this point that I'm certainly in the weak position We really know so little about life. When I first got to NASA Ames as a post-doc at the end of 1987, I will admit that I was a little smug. I thought, those poor planetary people. They need to wait for the next mission. What are they going to do? Republish their data until they're blue in the face? Go out and take a stroll, go bike riding, or whatever? Whereas I can go into the lab any day. I am surrounded by life. I can have a life and a career.
So at that point, we had one solar system when we had one life form. And we were pretty much even. And like I said, I was feeling a little smug.
So here we are. The last time I updated this slide was in April, but forgive me a few weeks. We still only knew about one life form. But we had 1,830 confirmed planets. We had 465 multiplanetary systems, and all the Kepler planets, and on and on and on.
Now, could you imagine if I were giving this talk and I said, we know about 1,830 different life forms? About 63% of them use these amino acids and about 18% use this kind of genetic code? And these have intelligence and these don't and so on? I mean, what an amazing, rich talk we'd able to give. Someday I hope, within my lifetime, we even have two. I mean, that would be the most incredible. But at this point, we still only have one. We don't even have a time machine for planet Earth.
Now, if I can just finish by saying that we are here on planet Earth now, but part of astrobiology is the future. And we are going forward to Mars. I don't quite understand the question, will we go to Mars? Of course we're going to go to Mars. It's only a matter of when. And obviously I'd prefer it within my lifetime. I think most people in the room would.
So how are you going to be able to survive on Mars? And again, I'm arguing that synthetic biology is not only providing the key to understanding life out there, but it's also going to provide the key to human habitation.
So let me just throw out some big ideas for you. For millennia, we've used biology to do chemistry, whether it's making fossil fuels, or making your ethanol, or cheese, or whatever. We use biology for chemistry. There's no reason we shouldn't use biology for chemistry off the Earth, including synthesis, and so on.
So you might use materials that are acquired from the Earth, or maybe they are acquired in transit. Maybe you pick them up from an, asteroid, or maybe you repurpose them from spent parts of spacecraft. And you use those to make useful products.
Look around you. The clothes you're wearing are probably biological products. Probably cotton, wool. I'm doing something unusual. I'm wearing silk today. All these things are biological products.
The thing is that we're not going to take silkworms, and sheep, and trees, and so on to Mars. But there's no reason not to take those capabilities and just put them in a different form factor. So think of something like a yeast cell, which you use to make bread and beer. Why not get the yeast cells to start making the silk, or the wood, or whatever?
And that's some of what we're doing in my lab, as well as going the next step. So printing it in confirmations that you would never see in nature. Taking the best of the plant world, cellulose, and combining it with the best of the animal kingdom, keratin. Things that never even happened in nature, you can be that much more amazing.
So besides making clothes and so on, you can make drugs. You can make alternate biochemistries and so on. But what if after all this-- and this won't happen in our lifetime. But what if after all this searching, and all this exploring, and all this habitation, we discover that indeed we are alone?
There is certainly going to be moral implications. There are going to be ethical implications. There are going to be potentially religious implications, environmental. Certainly scientific, because we have this idea that when the conditions are right-- the physical and chemical conditions-- you're going to get life.
So these are really, really profound questions. But oddly enough, I'd like to end with throwing a bucket of ice water on you for just a second. Every now and again I'm asked-- more often when I see my four siblings-- why are you doing this? The less gracious way to put it, since I'm a federal civil servant, is, why are you wasting the taxpayers' money on this?
And I'd like to give you what I think is a pretty good answer by way of a story. This is a photograph that I took outside of Nairobi. I need hardly mention that this was in the slums of Nairobi. I went into a school, along with Kevin Ham and a couple of other people.
Here was one of the classrooms. You can see a corrugated roof. No heating. Quite honestly, it smelled of urine. You couldn't hear once it started raining. These kids were crammed in. On top of it, about 2/3 of these kids were orphans. And this was not even a school day. But they were crammed in there to talk with us.
And so I did this whole life in the universe thing. And I remember at one point going through there's the sun, and then Mercury, and Venus, and Earth, and Mars. And I said after the Earth, what's the next planet? And I remember a little boy in the front raising his hands. He said, teacher, teacher, teacher, teacher, I know. I said, what? And he said, Jupiter. And the rest of these kids in rags looked at him like, are you an idiot? I mean, these kids were so into it.
And the point is it brings home to me the message that being human is a good deal more than just being a well-fed cow. It's part of humanity, of course. You want people well fed, and taken care of, and so on. But to be human means that we also have this exploration spirit, this curiosity about the world around us, this sense of wonder. And I would say, really, it comes down to this sense of awe of the natural world.
And that's what we're participating in here, with all the speakers in this symposium are participating. We've dedicated our lives to what humans really see as part of their humanity-- this sense of awe, and wonder, and exploration. And for that, I would like to think I speak for all of us that we're very privileged to be able to do this for our lives.
And so with that I'll say, ad astra. Thank you very much.
We've received your request
You will be notified by email when the transcript and captions are available. The process may take up to 5 business days. Please contact email@example.com if you have any questions about this request.
Lynn Rothschild of NASA Ames speaks at the inauguration of the Carl Sagan Institute, May 9, 2015. The inauguration event, "(un)Discovered Worlds," featured a day of public talks given by leading scientists and renowned astronomy pioneers.