Astrobiology and the Search for Extraterrestrial-Like Life

Dr. Boston with Samples, Photo Credit: NASA

Ira Pastor, ideaXme exponential health ambassador and founder of Bioquarkinterviews Dr. Penelope “Penny” Boston, recent Director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute.


Astrobiology is an interdisciplinary scientific field concerned with the origins, early evolution, distribution, and future of life in the universe, and considers the big question of whether extraterrestrial life exists, and if it does, how humans can detect it.

Astrobiology makes use of molecular biology, biophysics, biochemistry, astronomy, cosmology, exo-planetology, and geology to investigate the possibility of life on other worlds, and how to recognize biospheres that might be different from that on Earth.

Dr. Penelope Boston

Our guest today is Dr. Penelope “Penny” Boston, recent Director of NASA’s Astrobiology Institute.

Since May 2016, she has led the scientific activities of the institute’s member teams and all operational aspects of the organization whose mission is: to perform, support, and catalyze collaborative interdisciplinary astrobiology research; train the next generation of astrobiologists; provide scientific and technical leadership for astrobiology space mission investigations; and develop new information technology approaches for collaborations among widely distributed investigators.

Dr. Boston holds a PhD Microbiology and Atmospheric Chemistry, and her research interests include, but are not limited to, geo-microbiology of caves and mines, space exploration, astrobiology, and extraterrestrial speleogenesis (defined as the study of the origin and development of caves and “karst” — which are specific topographies formed from the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and gypsum).

Caves and Karst

Photo Credit: NASA

As a subset of her geo-microbiology focus, she has interest in a topic that we’ve touched on a bit on a previous show in our discussions on tardigrades. Namely extremophiles (extremotolerant organisms which thrive in the extremes of altitude, temperature, mineralized environments, pressure, radiation, vacuum, and weightlessness) conditions which may be found in caves and karst on Earth, and which could be looked into for equivalents of other objects in space from asteroids to exoplanets.

Early in Earth’s history, it was a very different planet than it is today, the metabolisms of the various subsurface extremophile microorganisms may give insight into the kinds of microorganisms that lived on the Earth millions of years ago, and which may exist on other planets that still have similar conditions on their surfaces.

She was principle investigator on The Caves of Mars Project, an early 2000s program funded by the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts to assess the best place to situate the research and habitation modules on a human mission to Mars.

Dr. Boston is also associate director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad, New Mexico, and founder and director of the Cave and Karst Studies Program at New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro.

She has authored/co-authored several publications including Scientists on Gaia, Scientists Debate Gaia: The Next Century, and The Case for Mars and also writes poetry.

On this show we hear from Dr. Boston:

Mars Rover, Photo Credit: NASA

About her background, how she developed a diverse set of interests, including microbiology, geology, chemistry, physics, and psychology. How she ended up leading astrobiology initiatives at NASA. How close the current cave/karst environments on Earth, that she bio-prospects within, mimic what we can best assume exists on exo-planets. What is involved in her daily research program for discovering novel extremophiles. Interesting properties of the extremophiles she discovers and if they have “earthly use” in industries (Pharma, chemical, etc.). Her opinion of tools such as synthetic biology and directed evolution to potentially reverse-engineer “alien-like” creatures for use in future space missions.

Credits: Ira Pastor interview video, text, and audio.

Follow Ira Pastor on Twitter: @IraSamuelPastor

If you liked this interview, be sure to check out our interview on virtual physiological humans for virtual clinical studies!

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