Baruch S. Blumberg

Amid good-humored joking in the media about E.T. and little green men, biochemist Baruch Blumberg, M.D., Ph.D., was appointed by NASA to head up its new Astrobiology Institute. The Institute’s aims include the study of the evolution of life on Earth and the search for signs of life on other planets.

At 74, Blumberg, the senior advisor to the president of Fox Chase Cancer Center and a University Professor of Medicine and Anthropology, takes on his new post this month after a distinguished career as a scientist and educator. Blumberg’s varied travels have taken him from a internship and residency on the overcrowded wards at Bellevue Hospital in New York (he earned his medical degree at Columbia in 1951) to research in West Africa, the Philippines, Surinam and Australia. His 1967 discovery of the hepatitis B virus won him the 1976 Nobel Prize, while his continued research helped create blood tests and a vaccine against the virus. Hepatitis B is now believed to cause 80 percent of all liver cancers as well as many cases of cirrhosis.

Blumberg’s intellectual curiosity has taken him to the fields of medical anthropology, evolutionary biology and human genetics, earning him 23 honorary degrees, including ones from Penn and Oxford, where he had earned his Ph.D. in biochemistry in 1957.

Extremophiles that survive in extremely cold environments.

American Society for Microbiology

In this latest chapter of his career, Blumberg will probe extreme corners of the Earth and the far reaches of space. From his headquarters at the NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA. , he will oversee the 11 different research institutions that make up the Institute, including Harvard, Penn State and Houston’s Johnson Space Center. Blumberg spoke to us from his home in Maine.

Q. How did your work, from Bellevue to field work in Africa, lead to this position?

A. My going to NASA was, I suppose, one of these chance happenings. I was at Stanford on sabbatical and during that time I attended several conferences on astrobiology at NASA Ames Research Center, in Moffett Field, CA. I attended seminars and workshops there and I helped to write some reports. I got to know some of the staff. They had just established the NASA Astrobiology Institute and were looking for a director and asked if I would do that. I believe [their interest was] based on my long experience in science, even though it’s not in astrobiology, and my interest in the scientific process.

Q. What was your reaction when they first proposed it to you?

A. Surprise. But then it’s such an exciting area of research that I couldn’t help but accept.

Q. What is the goal of the Institute?

A. The mission statement for the astrobiology enterprise at NASA is the study of the origins of evolution, the distribution and destiny of life on earth and in the universe.

Q. How do you even begin to tackle that?

A. Most of the bodies in our solar system, by Earth standards, are very extreme and in some respects are similar to conditions on Earth early in its history. So there’s a major interest in life forms that might have existed very early in the history of the Earth, in particular life forms that live under extreme environments, so-called extremophiles: organisms that live in geysers like at Yellowstone or that live in the black smoker areas at the bottom of the sea — a black smoker is a rift at bottom of sea where fresh lava is coming up.
Other aspects of astrobiology have to do with planetary geology and the atmosphere of planets. We’re interested in biological signatures: that is, evidence for the current presence of life or past presence of life that might exist in the geological record.

Q. Isn’t there a mission to study Mars?

A. NASA has a mission planned about every two years. On Dec. 3 it’s expected that the Mars Polar Lander will touch down on Mars. They’ve just selected the landing site, which will be in a flat plane where they can get plenty of sun for solar power. Then there are other missions in place now. The Mars Global Surveyor has been mapping Mars in great detail for the last several months and images gained from the Surveyor were used for site selection. In addition, there’s a Mars Climate Orbiter and it’s going to go around the planet on Sept. 23. It will look at atmosphere and serve as a communications relay satellite for the Polar Lander.

Q. So the first focus of the Astrobiology Institute will be Mars?

A. There are several locations where it’s thought life would exist, either presently or in the past. One is Mars. There’s also Europa, a moon of Jupiter. They are the most likely targets in our solar system.

Q. Why are these two sites thought to be most promising?

A. Mars is a solid planet and it has a geology similar to that of Earth. It has a moon, and there’s evidence that there was water there at one time. It also has an ice cap, and there’s good reason to believe that the ice is water ice in addition to dry ice, CO2 ice. And there’s some information that there’s tectonic action on Mars. All these are conditions that have existed on Earth in the past. And the atmosphere on the planet Mars has some similarities to what we know about the atmosphere on Earth billions of years ago.
Europa is thought to be covered with ice. The hypothesis is that there’s water under that ice. Tentative plans are to develop miniature submarines which would land on the ice and bore through or heat the ice to see if there’s water.

Q. There’s been a lot of joking about little green men. Do you think there is intelligent life on other planets?

A. Our interest is in looking for these very primitive single-cell life forms which wouldn’t have the kind of intelligence that little green men are thought to have. We think strongly enough that there may be forms of life elsewhere that we’re spending a lot of time and energy looking for them. But this is a scientific hypothesis, and hypotheses can either be supported or rejected. Whenever you do studies of this kind what you always expect is the unexpected. So we’re looking for unexpected things.

Q. Why should we be spending millions of dollars to find out if there’s life on other planets?

A. There’s a real human need to understand nature. In addition to that, it’s been demonstrated many times in the past that the pursuit of basic scientific knowledge leads to practical applications. So it’s to our advantage economically in addition to the importance of the knowledge itself.

Q. Can you make any predictions about what applications might come of this research?

A. The discovery of new kinds of enzymes in the strange organisms that are being studied, which may have applications that we can’t even think of now. I think there would be whole host of gene combinations or gene actions in these organisms that are quite different from other organisms because of their need to adapt to very extreme conditions. It might lead to new materials. There’s a great interest in biomimetic engineering or biomimetic products — things that are similar to things that are made biologically that can be used for coverings or materials or the development of more sophisticated computers. There’s a wide range of possibilities.

Q. It sounds like a new frontier.

A. That’s right. It’s very exciting. I may sound contained but I’m very excited to be a part of this whole program.

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Originally published on September 16, 1999