PD: Should I go ahead and tell you about what I do first or about my opinion on the topic
J: First we’re going to talk about what you do and then your opinion on the topic
PD: Ok. I am a microbial ecologist, an oceanographic, I work on marine microbial ecology and natural product discovery. Basically, we look at bacteria that live at the bottom of the ocean in sediments, marine sediments. I look for chemical compounds that can be used as antibiotics
J: Great so just to let everyone watching know. I’m Julia and I’m a student at The George Washington University. Today I’m interviewing professor Alejandra Preito-Davo, who you just heard introduce herself. She is a professor of marine biology studies at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. And I’ll be interviewing her as a part of the NASA Astrobiology Debates interview series, which is a part of the international student research projects which is sponsored by the astrobiology program of the United States National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to promote public dialogue and debate over the 2015 NASA Debates Topic: An overriding ethical obligation to protect and preserve extraterrestrial microbial life and ecosystems should be incorporated into international law. So I guess let’s first talk about what your general ideas are about the topic. How you feel about it, what you think is the stronger side.
PD: Ok, well when I read the topic, it of course made me think, because I think more about looking at things in the ocean and not in space. I always keep saying, we should look harder in the ocean before we go to space. But I understand the need to go to space and I think it’s a very important topic to discuss before we go to mars. Regarding microbiology, I think it actually has been proposed that even the rover had an impact, fi there is any extraterrestrial life on mars. If we’re talking about microbial life. People have said that we have already sent it and contaminated it with our bacteria. Whatever we’ve sent that can actually live on mars will actually start living on it. We’re going ot have to decide, if we ever go to mars and settle, if whatever is there is brought by us. Because whatever we send from earth that can survive the trip will def adapt and live there. So that’s the first thing, I think any approach to another planet will bring in microbes from earth, that’s what people suggest happen when astroids fall on earth. That they can bring microbial extraterrestrial life. Second thing is, I agree on the second part of the topic, where it says that we’ve already messed up the earth, well enough to know that if we go to another planet we don’t want ot mess it up as much as we have this one, so in regards of my area of research it is v important ot explore, to go and look for new microbes, because what we’re looking for, and what we look for at the bottom of the ocean, is we look for microbes that live in extreme environments. That are v different from the ones we have already explored. Those microbes, I don’t know if anyone that’s watching, or will watch know, most of the antibiotics that we use now come from microbes. They are small molecules that microbes produces themselves, to either talk, communicate or have chemical warfare between the other microbes, we don’t know exactly why they make them. We know about some of the microbes but we don’t know about all of them. So if we can actually get microbes from Mars, we can make them grow and we can explore them. In my area of research it would be incredibly useful bc they would be making ones that are very different than the ones we’re using because they’ve been exposed to different evolutionary pressures that are very different form the ones that can be produced on earth. And for natural product discovery that would be incredibly exciting and that would be a way to go. So we would have to go and explore, we would have to take samples, but the more we go into a new planet and bring in things from earth and the more we go and build ings the more we’re going to contaminate it with our own bacteria. And actually you can see that in the ocean, for us the farther we go from the shoreline, the more different the bacteria are, so that’s what we’re looking for. We try to go for bacteria that are very different from land, but we can see from all of the studies that we have done that the ones that are closer to shore resemble the ones that are on land, because an influence of all of the rivers flowing in, all of the waste waters coming in. So we have to go really far away in the ocean to actually try to get these new microbes, or we have to go to very extreme environments. So regarding that we for us it is v important to keep everything pristine, so I guess ethically speaking we would have to see what lives over there and we would have to see what lives over there, and try to understand it first and then once we have, at least a good idea of what these microbes are and what they’re doing, then we could propose ways of colonizing a new planet without screwing up all of the microbial life.
J: Great thank you, that was so informative and very helpful for a broad overview of the topic and very helpful for what we might be able to do, on both sides to uphold what we should do morally, but still have development. Going off what you said, in that our bacteria will obviously contaminate anything that we find on Mars, what do you think that development would do to the extent of changing those microbes. Do you think it would have to be very very low scale development, and if so hwo far do you think we should take that until we know enough about the microbes?
PD: Ok so, I guess a good way of comparing it would be if you woud have to develop a naturally protected area, or a pristine island, there’s not many left, but there’s some left. We know that, at leat in the ocean, everything starts off with the microbes. They’re in charge of cycling the nutrients, they’re in charge of the balance with those nutrients, so they make sure that everything is in touch with the small scale stuff, talking about plankton for example, so what’s happening may of these places, there’s been an input of lost of nutrients from the developments that we create. And that changes all of the microbiology which in turn has effects on the higher organisims, for example coral reefs. You have a big input of organic matter into the ocean and the microbe sin t;here cannot recycle it, let’s put it that way, they cannot recycle if fast enough. Or they can but they transform into a lot of nutrients and then that makes phytoplankton. But then the auxotrophic microbes cannot deal with eating all of the remaining organic matter. So that invariably goes down in the water column and it would settle and it would hurt the coral who also have microbial symbions that depend on those nutrient inputs. So it screws everything up, right? On regards on what you said, how much development could we start up with. Like I said I think the first thing would be to understand what microbes in Mars are doing, what their roles are chemically speaking in keeping the env the way it is. And then trying to preserve that environment. I think here’s where the conflict comes in if we want to go live in mars we cannot keep the environment as it is because it’s hostile for us. So here’s where the ethical question comes. Because we’ve seen that there’s no, so far, there’s no higher forms of life. We haven’t seen any weird extraterrestrial life running around with the rover. We’ve just seen rocks so far, some remnants of what could have been water, and some indication of what could be microbial life. So then of course people that want to go to mars will say “well then it’s perfect there’s nothing there that we can screw up”, well if the planet is kept in check rn by the kind of microbes that are present, the moment that we bring in plants that can actually live in mars, say we genetically modify them to do the temperatures, and we change the environment, and we start changing everything, it might be a good idea for us, but then we can’t go back to what it was, and that’s I think we have to be very careful of, we would have to create development in a way that we could always go back to the way it was, so that we don’t screw up the planet completely. If we can make sure that we have all of the knowledge first of what makes mars the way it is, biochemically speaking, biologically speaking, chemically speaking, environmentally speaking, taking a look at the climate and how it’s controlled. Taking a look at everything about the planet first before we go in and change it and make it what we want it to be. I believe that that’s first what we have to do, ther would have to be studies of the planet, not just to make sure that we can live on it, but to make sure we know what it’s made of and how it’s kept in check riht now. First, to see if what we develop can keep the planet the way it is, we can probably do that, we can create capsules, we can live in huge cities covered by a big capsule and then we wont be screwing up the whole planet and ofc we would have to create naturally protected areas in mars. But I think the main thing is that we would have to make sure that we could go back, in my topic of interest we would have to make sure that what we produce, our waste, our development, would not destroy the microbial life as it is right now. I guess that would be the best idea of how much development we could create. Just enough that we know we can always go back:
J: So within that idea of being able to go back, creating these protected spaces, looking at what has happened with the ocean. What do you think the pheasability of proctected spaces are. Have you ever seen this work within the ocean, what pitfalls have you seen when we try to preserve life there.
PD: What happens for microbes in the ocean is that you can create a protected area, there will be influence, and this is what happens in the ocean there is influence of currents from all over the world. So you can have a naturally protected area that gets trash from Thailand every single day. The area is protected, no one can go there and trash it but it still gets all the trash, so unfortunately for the ocean, you can only enclose an area, but the organisims that live in it are not really enclosed. There is no frontier, they can come in and out. I’ve seen, and this is actually very funny, when I lived in San Diego, when I did my graduate studies in San Diego we would go for our diving classes, for our diving classes we would go to a naturally protected area in a very small location in San Diego, it was amazing when you left the area, you would go 6 feet away, it would be the exact same area and there would be no fish, you would move 6 feet into the area and all the fish would be there. They kinda learn that they cannot be touched in that area. They know that if they go beyond a certain point they may not come back, and I don’t know how they do this, but it’s really really good, and there’s a big difference, and I don’t know if this happens in all of the areas, but I know that some of the fish, not all of them are smart enough to know that they are protected in one area and they shouldn’t go out to another. O f course this is a little sad because they are confined to one area they are not free enough to go, they’ve learned that if they go they might not come back. I don’t think anyone has started a study on this but they’ve actually evolved recently to know to not move out. Regarding mating in a protected area, it’s the same thing, you have a very big area where no one can fish. But in order for that to work you have to have the power to find the people that are fishing and fine it hard enough and without any corruption that it won’t come back. I can tell you, unfortunately, what happens in Mexico is that a lot of areas are protected but they’re protected on paper but they’re not literally protected because we don’t have enough money to have ships that should be potrolling the area so that no one comes in but here it could be a protected area and suddenly a Chinese ship comes and takes everything and we can’t do anything about it because we don’t have the money to actually have the big boat that can chase them out. So everything, if this happened in another planet it would have to be implementing some rules and making sure that those rules are followed, because I don’t understand why not all of us understand that if we don’t follow those rules it’s detrimental for ourselves. Yeah it takes a while, it takes 25, 30 years for it to happen, but it will happen. You tell people here that over-fishing is bad and they’ll tell you, no I’ve been here for 50 years, and we’ve fished all we want and there’s always fish. And they just cannot understand why you’re telling them that the fish will disappear. For them it’s not real, for them it’s, well I’ve been here 50 years and it’s never happened. They don’t understand, yes but in the next 30 there will be no fish. Because we have a very short lifespan compared to life on earth, I don’t think we’re capable of understanding the actual consequences of what we do and how they will effect in 100 or 200 years, and we don’t care because we only live here for 89 or 90, so I guess my experience with protected areas would be that one. I mean you protect the area but you need to implement that protection, you need to have the means to protect it, not just paper that says it’s protected, and you also have to make sure that there’s nothing from the outside that influences that protected area, in the ocean you can protect the area, but you can get influence from the areas around it that will still effect it.
J: Great, I guess then, going off of that, what would happen outside of these protected areas. What you think the probability is of there being vastly different microbial life outside of the specific areas that are protected, because I know that you’ve done a lot of work looking at the vast number of micro-organisims that are in the ocean and in places that we’ve never looked before, so what do you think the probability is that we would develop a portion that we didn’t think had super important microbial life, but could have in the future.
PD: I think our first problem with that, is that because we don’t know the extraterrestrial microbrial life very well we don’t know how to study it or grow it in a lab. The same thing happens in the ocean. We bring up the organisims into a lab that can first survive the change in pressure, and then survive in your flask. Not all the organisms there can definitely survive all of those conditions. Now, oh shoot, I have to take a call can you give me two seconds, I have a baby I have to take it. Sorry I have a little baby and it looks like she has a fever, so we might have to cut our interview short. I apologize.
J: Oh it’s totally fine, do what you need to do.
PD: I was telling you that the main problem of this is that we don’t know how to study it. The advantage is that we have our technologies. Microbial life is made out of the same genetic microbial life is made out of the same genetic material that we’re made out of then we’ll be able to study it. Because I’m pretty sure, I’m very sure that somebody will, I mena the rover is staying there but we’re going to send something back. Actually you may know this better than me, if NASA has actually sent something to mars that is on it’s way back, I’m not sure.
J: I know that we’ve sent back a few samples of rocks that have been found by the rover.
PD: When that comes, I’m very very sure that the NASA microbiologists will try to do a DNA extraction out of it, if there’s any DNA they’ll get it out. And right now we don’t need to grow anything, I mena they’ll try to grow stuff, but we don’t need to grow anything to find out what kind of genetic material is there, as long as it is the same genetic material that we’re made of. I mean that’s the thing we don’t know what they’re made of, we’re assuming that they’re exactly like us and that’s where we’re going to start. So what could happen is that eventually say ok, there’s absolutely nothing in this planet but rocks, and we don’t have the means to actually look. Or at least we’ll say there’s nothing in this planet that we can say is alive, there’s nothing making energy, there’s nothing with a metabolism, because we’re going to be studying it based on what we know. So we’ll go over there and we’ll build and we’ll do things. Then maybe in 100 years we’ll say oops look at this we didn’t know how to study this and it turns out there’s all of this life that we didn’t know was actually life because it has a completely different metabolism from ours, and turns out we screwed it up, which is probably what will happen.
J: Thank you so much for that insight. I’m going to let you get to your baby
PD: Thank you I wasn’t counting on her getting a fever I have to go back home.
J: It’s totally fine thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me and for lending your expertise to this series.