Interviewer: I’m John-Hanson Machado and I am a senior studying Chemistry and Biology at The George Washington University. This year, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Astrobiology Program is partnering with GW to host a series of debates for policy and ethical considerations stemming from a famous Carl Sagan statement: “If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes.” To help debaters with the topic, we are hosting a series of expert interviews and I am pleased to be joined here today by Dr. Janet Louise Siefert who is a senior faculty fellow at Rice University in the department of statistics. Dr. Siefert’s research on the origin of life has been featured on National Geographic and the Discovery Channel and she is the first woman to serve as chairman of the Gordon Research Conference on the Origin of Life as well as the first president of the International Astrobiology Society. This interview will not only serve as a resource for debaters, but also become part of a permanent online record for the implications of astrobiology on humanity. For those who are unfamiliar with the current research in astrobiology, can you explain the role of statistics and your role as a biologist in understanding astrobiology?
Dr. Siefert: Basically my work is using statistics and phylogenetic packages and bioinformatics to understand how life is distributed on our planet. Specifically we work in several locations, one of them is in Mexico, one of them is in Israel, but we are trying to understand exactly how microbiology as a community interacts with its environment and we use statistical packages to evaluate that.
Interviewer: Very interesting, very interesting. What are the research questions still being asked with regards to this topic?
Dr. Siefert: Well we know a lot about microbes, certainly a lot more in the last fifteen years because of genomics sequencing, but we have just touched the tip of the ice berg because our planet actually runs, I mean the engine that actually runs the elemental recycling, are microbes and we’ve just barely scratched the surface of how we know those communities interact.
Interviewer: Absolutely, absolutely. You are also a member of the American Society of Microbiology. Last week, the journal Nature published an article about a fungus surviving a simulated mars. Why were only a small portion of the fungal cells able to divide in this simulation on the International Space Station?
Dr. Siefert: Yes. I’m actually not familiar with that paper but let me just take a shot at your question. So, now I’m not a fungal expert, I’m a bacteria person, but the fact that gravity is not the way it is on a spaceship as it is on Earth effects the way that the cell cycle actually works, so I’m assuming that might have had something to do with it but, I don’t know the particulars of that particular experiment. I would need to look at that.
Interviewer: Absolutely. So in your experience, what is typically the issue with life outside our planet?
Dr. Siefert: Well, we have life everywhere on this planet almost that we know of. In cold areas, dry areas, wet areas, very hot areas. The problem seems to be that if you have cycling of cold and heat – very, very, very, very cold and then thawing out, that actually is very destructive for bacterial colonies. So places like mars where you have these extremes in temperatures, you might have something be able to make it if it was in a protected environment where those extremes weren’t there. But when you begin to have extremes during the 24-hour period or 48-hour period, or whatever the day period is for a planet that is very problematic for life.
Interviewer: So it’s more so the cycling of temperatures rather than a given temperature. Like I’m aware of extremophiles in the benthos of the ocean. Is that what you’re getting at? It’s hard for the cell to keep an equilibria when it’s positioned at both extremes?
Dr. Siefert: Right. We have things living that are almost in boiling water and certainly things can live for a very long time in a very low stasis if they’re in a very cold environment. But once you start freezing and thawing and freezing and thawing, that seems to, or that’s where the current research actually looks like where the actual problem is. Radiation is not as big of a problem, I mean we have organisms that can actually handle radiation.
Interviewer: That’s interesting. That would have been the first thing I would have thought of being the issue for life. You hear about all this genetic damage due to high energy solar radiation, so.
Dr. Siefert: Well certainly there are things that would be damaged. But we do have organisms, Dienococcus is one that can handle a lot of radiation and then it just stitches its genome back together.
Interviewer: Wow. So specifically, the topic for this series is: Resolved: An overriding ethical obligation to protect and preserve extraterrestrial microbial life and ecosystems should be incorporated into international law. What is your understanding of life as a biologist, how might that differ from the lay-person’s understanding of what life is?
Dr. Siefert: Hmmm. Well, that’s a tough question because just, I think anybody that, anyone that tries to define what life is kind of comes up with an issue, whether you’re a lay-person or a scientist. I’ve been in lots of meetings, I’ve been in the origins of life field for almost 25 years and trying to agree on a definition of what life is, is very difficult. You can look at it from the chemistry standpoint, you can look at it from the mechanistic standpoint, you can look at it from the genetics standpoint, but what makes that, what makes something be not alive, almost alive, and alive is very hard to define. You can say if it’s able to mutate and then also repair and reproduce, but there’s still problems with all those definitions and I think that even if you were a lay-person with a high school or college background you’d still have trouble trying to define life. So, probably, I would say, that whether you’re in the scientific community or whether you’re in the lay community, trying to understand what we might find on another planet as far as what that, whether something is alive or not we’d all be – we’d probably know it when we saw it, no matter what our educational background was, but we wouldn’t know how to explain we knew what it was.
Interviewer: Very interesting. One of my favorite questions to ask all of my biology professors is what your stance is on viruses and life?
Dr. Siefert: Well, I change periodically, but right now I think viruses are a later thing. I think they’re a relic of something that happened. That’s my opinion. But if you’re asking me if they’re alive, I don’t think that they’re alive – but they’re close.
Interviewer: So do you think there should be a different value placed on multicellular vs microbial life forms? I mean certainly when we do research, we do place a different value as far as what kind of approvals you need to get done when you do microbial vs. multicellular life forms. So what’s your stance on that?
Dr. Siefert: So that sort of gets into whether or not I think things have sentience or not, or whether or not they feel pain. Multicellular covers a huge, huge range of organisms. I certainly don’t think there’s anything wrong with experimenting with a mushroom, but I would probably have second thoughts about experimenting with things that I do know feels pain or has some sort of an emotional understanding like dogs or monkeys or anything else. But, I probably, if I had to say something about microbes, I would say that they’re underappreciated. So they’re underappreciated because they’re the workhorses of our planet, our planet would not make it if we did not have the microbes doing what they’re doing. So where I am not scared to death that they are going to, that we need to call to arms and save them, I don’t think that’s necessary. I do think they’re underappreciated as far as what they do.
Interviewer: So do you think that they are underappreciated as life forms, I mean, because the question is specific to microbial life and whether we do have an obligation to protect microbial life. So in what sense do you think where the protection of microbial life should be considered?
Dr. Siefert: Well, microbial life works so differently than multicellular organisms, or organisms that have sort of, what we would consider sexual propagation. I mean you’re talking about microbes are clonal and there’s a very robust gene transfer system that makes them be able to adapt to almost any environment. So I guess I’m not as worried about individual organisms protecting them, you know individual groups of bacteria protecting them because I think they’re fairly robust. But, I mean if you did find something on Mars or another planet that was very different, clearly wasn’t seeded from us, but was very different from what we have here, then I think you’d be running an experiment that wouldn’t be a good one if you tried to introduce some sort of bacterial community from here, or you accidentally did, or you didn’t think far enough ahead and you did. So I think it should be protected that way, but there were a lot of “ifs” in that answer right. There’s a lot of, we’d have to, if it’s just something that if, very similar to what we have here I wouldn’t probably be worried, to be honest.
Interviewer: So as an evolutionary biologist, I know in the field of genomics a lot of it is focused on populations evolve, species don’t, no I mean populations evolve individuals do not.
Dr. Siefert: Right.
Interviewer: So would you be concerned if we found life and there was an excessively small population on how you would like to conduct research on them?
Dr. Siefert: If that was the case, yes. But I have a hard time understanding how that would be the case. It must be at some point. But I have a hard time understanding how it would be just such a small colony and we would find it and it would be [eking] out of living. I just, I think that would be, we would be really, really lucky or really extraordinarily lucky or maybe that colony is extraordinarily lucky. Because the more that we know about microbes and how they interact among themselves and with all other organisms on the planet, there’s a whole lot of them doing a whole lot of stuff everywhere. It’s just hard for me to think about there just being a few in some little pocket somewhere.
Interviewer: So there’s often a disconnect between what scientists and members of society feel is ethically conducted research. For example, in Germany and Italy, stem cell research is illegal, whereas in Japan and Australia it is supported. If we can’t come to conclusions about stem cell research, how might larger discussions take place on ethical considerations of extraterrestrial microbial life?
Dr. Siefert: Wow that’s a -
Interviewer: Just a thought.
Dr. Siefert: How can we, how can we come to an agreement on how to protect microbial life extraterrestrial-ly, given that we can’t come to an agreement on much of anything else here?
Dr. Siefert: Yeah. I don’t know [laughs]. I don’t know the answer to that one. Just try to work together and be willing to, I guess compromise some. You know you can’t, there is sort of an interesting compromise that has gone on, say like with the international space station. So originally, a certain number of colony forming units were okay if you saw them in the, you know if you took tests, right. But over time as people came and went in the international space station, those numbers have gotten bigger and bigger and bigger, because every time somebody comes in, they give whatever their natural flora and fauna is to that environment and that environment is never aired out or changed or anything, right. So, somebody’s agreeing to the fact that we just keep raising the number that’s allowable there.
Interviewer: So maybe people become more and more accepting as it, you think it might be a slower process?
Dr. Siefert: Maybe, maybe if you understand the environment a little bit more, maybe if you understand that you get more data about how things are working, maybe you can learn how to better protect it or what needs to be protected, or you know, maybe something doesn’t need to be protected.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.
Dr. Siefert: I don’t know a good answer to your question to be honest [laughs].
Interviewer: [Laughs] thank you. And do you think that one side of the debate has an upper hand?
Dr. Siefert: You mean politically do they have an upper hand?
Dr. Siefert: Or through knowledge do they have a better, a better upper hand? There’s two things working, at work here right. So there’s the politics and then there’s the knowledge and they’re both supposed to be driving each other. And honestly, I mean I don’t know who has the better hand. Who has the upper hand on it – I don’t know. I can’t answer that.
Interviewer: Thank you very much.
Dr. Siefert: I’m not very good for you. [laughs]
Interviewer: [laughts] oh no, no, no this is good. I mean it’s great to have a scientist, specifically one focusing on something as abstract as astrobiology and the origins of life. So I have one last question for you. And what is your particular stance on the issue and if we should interact with extraterrestrial microbial life to what extent? And should this extend beyond microbes?
Dr. Siefert: Well, I think my stance would be, I mean if we found life on another planet, it would be extremely interesting. Whether it’s – and the argument always comes down to whether or not it is an original evolved event, something separate from what’s happened on Earth that we’re a little bit more familiar with, or whether it’s just something that’s been seeded from our planet or we were seeded from them, right. So to me, no matter which one of those, I think it’s interesting, I think it’s very interesting. I would probably err on the side of caution so that we don’t contaminate and we try not to bring contamination back. So I would err on the side of that. But I personally am not certain that anywhere in our solar system we will find life, living currently right now. I don’t – I’m not – I’m less optimistic about that than most, probably most of my peers.
Interviewer: So it’s an interesting point that you raised with regards to the fact that with - the idea that we could have stemmed from one common ancestor and be on such geographically diverse locations. How might that happen biologically and physically?
Dr. Siefert: Well, I think that’s just, to me, from the microbial standpoint, that is the real beauty of how microbes evolve and adapt. I mean and it really is a beautiful thing to consider. Because, the more that we know about the genomics and of communities and individuals we realize that a microbe, given the time, given a big enough community, they can adapt to almost anything. Any kind of chemicals that we bring on, that we pollute with, anything. Given enough time, they can actually find a way to use them. So, to me, that creates, it’s a different kind of diversity than you have in like higher organisms, so I’m not really addressing that at this point, but what I am saying is just [sound cut out]… I think it’s really an incredible thing. And it brings, it’s brought about a diversity that allows other more complicated organisms or multicellular organisms to actually have environments that then they can then thrive in and evolve in and move around in. So, that’s the beautiful thing about this planet, and now that I am thinking about your question, maybe that’s why I don’t think there’s life like on Mars. I can’t imagine that once life gets started the way the adaptive process can work, that you wouldn’t end up with something like what we have on this planet. And clearly, you don’t have that on Mars. I mean you know, it’s just, it’s just an incredible, the biology here is incredible, to me.
Interviewer: No I agree, it’s a fascinating time to be in this field.
Dr. Siefert: It is.
Interviewer: With genomics and having this access to the idea that there’s millions of bacteria, and that’s, just the sheer number allows them to adapt much more quickly. It’s a very fascinating time.
Dr. Siefert: Yes it is.
Interviewer: But, I would like to thank you Dr. Siefert for sharing your expertise in astrobiology with debaters so that they may formulate their arguments, and for your time in providing a public record as we discuss ethical considerations of astrobiology before we find life beyond our pale blue dot. So I’d like to thank you again, I appreciate your time.
Dr. Siefert: Okay, you have a good day. Thank you.
Interviewer: Thank you.