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Duke Research - Were the Building Blocks Delivered?

Europa by Galileo mission

October 6, 2010

Were the Building Blocks Delivered?

If we really care to find out whether we're alone in the universe, we shouldn't be looking for intelligent life.  "We have a much better chance of finding stupid life," says Lynn Rothschild, an astrobiologist with NASA's Ames Research Center, who also teaches at Stanford.  

Rothschild, who's evolutionary biology background is in microbes and other small, non-sentient things, was in Durham this week to meet with the folks at NESCent, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center.  She was here for meetings and a Wednesday brown bag seminar because NESCent would like to get into the Astrobiology business themselves, said NESCent director Allen Rodrigo.

"Astrobiology is evolutionary biology writ large," Rothschild said. It starts with figuring out the parameters of temperature, pH, pressure, salinity and so-on that Earth's biochemistry can tolerate, and then looking for other places that might fall within that range. Right now, she's leading a team to see if there's anything alive in Earth's near-space environment, 100,000 to 300,000 feet up.

"We're assuming at NASA that life is reliant on liquid water," Rothschild says. "I'm not as wedded to that as to carbon," the fourth most common element in the universe and a darn fine partner for all kinds of great chemistry. But water is a pretty good place to start, as it currently or formerly has been on several other orbs just within our own puny solar system.

Interstellar space isn't a perfect vacuum as you may have been taught. It's actually lousy with free-floating molecules as large as 13 atoms, enough to form myriad chemical building blocks, including amino acids. "This is really a universal vocabulary that is waiting to be built into life."

So there's lots of carbon and water out there, and even some precursors of biochemistry, and Earth's version of life turns out to have a very wide range of tolerance. "There are probably other places, even within our own solar system, that have potential for life," she says. " You've got to start thinking life is out there."

By the way, if they do find something on the Jovian moon Europa, the naming will be easy. They'd be Europeans, right?

See Also: Lynn Rothschild on this short video, narrated by Morgan Freeman.

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Tags: biology, field research

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