BARUCH S. BLUMBERG: NONEXTREMOPHILE
• Born July 28, 1925: “A very optimistic time”
• Wife, Jean, a painter; daughters, Anne and Jane; sons, George and Noah
• Most Important Field Trip: The Philippines in 1967 to test hepatitis virus theory
• Best-Known Fact: Won 1976 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine
i• Least-Known Fact: His rustic western Maryland farm lacks indoor plumbing
• On Extraterrestrials in Our Solar System: “Highly evolved life is very unlikely,but we have to continue our search”
The relentless heat cooks the Badwater region of California's Death Valley so thoroughly that some expanses are textured like dry serpent skin. At some 284 feet below sea level--North America's lowest point--it is perhaps the hottest place on the surface of the earth: the temperature once peaked at a record 53.01 degrees Celsius (127.4 degrees Fahrenheit). Out here, blood-pumping mammals are scarce. It may seem unfitting to find a Nobel Prize winner, renowned for hepatitis B work, in this scorching pit. But Baruch S. Blumberg's latest challenge takes him beyond human subjects. As the first director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Astrobiology Institute (NAI), he is searching for extreme life-forms, the kind the space agency aims to someday find on other worlds.
"I always liked the idea of doing fieldwork, exploring, going out and finding new things," Blumberg says back at NAI headquarters, which is nestled near Silicon Valley at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field. Out of his desert garb, the outdoors-loving Blumberg looks a good decade younger than his 75 years. At the job only since last September, Blumberg is trying to marshal gaggles of astronomers, chemists, ecologists, geologists, biologists, physicists and even zoologists. He is convinced that advances in molecular biology, space exploration and other endeavors make timely the reexamination of such age-old issues as the origins of life and its possible existence elsewhere.
"Technology is available to decipher the intricacies of this cause-and-effect chain" that wasn't available even five years ago, Blumberg notes, citing in particular advances achieved through the Human Genome Project. The 1996 announcement of potential fossilized life in a Martian meteorite known as ALH84001 boosted enthusiasm worldwide. Even Congress, which had quashed NASA's search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) program in 1993, became receptive. On sabbatical at Stanford University in 1998, Blumberg, along with scores of others, helped to craft NASA's Astrobiology Roadmap during a series of workshops. It defined the role for the new institute.
"With NASA's Astrobiology Institute we are witnessing not just a shift in scientific paradigm but, more important, a shift in cultural acceptability among scientists," says extrasolar planet hunter Geoffrey W. Marcy of San Francisco State University. Already Blumberg's institute is becoming "the intellectual basis for a broad range of NASA missions," says NASA administrator Daniel S. Goldin. Goldin hopes to raise the NAI's budget from about $15 million to $100 million within five years. The NAI now comprises some 430 astrobiologists at 11 universities and research institutions.
Although the institute is lending new credibility to the search for extraterrestrial life, X-files fans needn't hold their breath. Unlike the now privately funded SETI program, which focuses on radio transmissions and other hallmarks of presumably sentient beings [see "Where Are They?" by Ian Crawford, on page 28], the NAI is targeting microorganisms and other, even more primitive evidence of lifelike matter. Specifically, the NAI is looking for life in hostile environments--in deserts, volcanoes and ice caps; down thousands of meters below Earth's surface or into the ocean; and on Mars, Jupiter's moon Europa, Saturn's satellite Titan, even planets beyond the solar system.
For now at least, extremophiles on Earth offer the most probable model for testing the hypothesis that life exists elsewhere. NAI researchers hope to use genomic databases of key microorganisms to link evolutionary sequences with geochemical and paleontological events. Another desire is to launch DNA microprobes on board miniature spacecraft to search for signs of life. Answers, if they ever come, may take many decades