Suggested Searches

Lynn Rothschild: Creating Synthetic Organisms And The Search for Life

Season 1Dec 21, 2016

A conversation with Lynn Rothschild, astrobiologist and synthetic biologist in the Earth Science Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.

The cover art display for the NASA in Silicon Valley podcast.

A conversation with Lynn Rothschild, astrobiologist and synthetic biologist in the Earth Science Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.


Matthew C. Buffington (Host):You are listening to episode 22 of the NASA in Silicon Valley podcast. Today’s guest is Lynn Rothschild, NASA researcher for astrobiology and synthetic biology. We discuss the Journey to Mars and how new, upcoming technologies can help us on the way. We also talk about how understanding life in extreme locations on Earth can help us better understand the possibilities of life in our solar system and beyond. Without further ado, here is Lynn Rothschild.


Host: What brought you to NASA? How did you end up in Silicon Valley at NASA?

Lynn Rothschild: Well, I never, ever thought that I would end up here. I’m a New Englander. I grew up in Connecticut. I was actually born in New York. I’m trying not to sound too New York for you. But I’m a New Englander. And how I ended up at NASA was — well, it’s not a complete mystery. I think I’ve now put the pieces together over the last 20 years or so. But what happened was I’m an evolutionary biologist by love and by training and a protistologist even before that because I love little things like amoebae and paramecium and so on —

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: — and actually raised them when I was a kid, you know, went into the smelly water and looked under a microscope and all that sort of stuff. And so I ended up doing a Ph.D. at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island on the evolution of chloroplasts in different algae and seaweeds and so on. And a professor at Harvard very kindly invited me to give a seminar there.

And so I gave the seminar on the evolution of chloroplasts. And when I sat down, he looked at me. And he said, “Did you know that NASA would have funded your Ph.D.?” And I looked at him. “Are you crazy? NASA is a space agency.” He said, “No. They’re really –“

Host: What does that have to do —

Lynn Rothschild: Right. “They’re really interested in the origin — early evolution of life because of the interest in life elsewhere in the universe. So I just thought that was insane. But I didn’t think that much about it. But this is the piece that I have finally put together. I confronted him finally. And sure enough, he gave NASA my name.

Host: Really?

Lynn Rothschild: And next thing I knew, I was getting advertisements for post-doctoral fellowships.

Host: Nice. Start getting those emails.

Lynn Rothschild: Yeah. And — no. This was way before email, young man. [laughter] In the olden days, we sent out —

Host: When we were in high school together —

Lynn Rothschild: No. We sent our carrier pigeons in those days.

Host: Nice. [laughs]

Lynn Rothschild: It wasn’t quite that. Although, NASA did get me started on email. By that point, we were using mainframes and so on. I’m terribly, terribly old.

Host: Okay. So they got you on board —

Lynn Rothschild: So anyway — yeah. Yeah. So I got this thing. And they said they were looking for people with a background in microbiology and evolution. I thought, weird, but why not? And I got an offer from NASA. And I got an offer actually from the Canadian government as well, which is a little odd because I’m not a Canadian.

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: But they had some really good people up there that I was thinking of working with. And it was a very hard decision because I would have loved to have worked in this lab in Halifax. But in the end, I thought, you know, I’m a U.S. citizen. And NASA is kind of cool. Well, you know, California certainly —

Host: So it was like not only just join NASA, but it was like come to California.

Lynn Rothschild: Well, no. It was more than that. So I’d sent in my application. And then, a couple months later, I got a cold call from Ames. And this was in February. And it was snowing and so on. And I remember answering the phone. And the conversation basically boiled down to, “How would you like to work for NASA? How would you like to move to California? How would you like to look for life on Mars? And how would you like to go to the Antarctic?”

Host: You’re like, all of the above, please.

Lynn Rothschild: Right. So I have done everything except the Antarctic now in my career at NASA. So I came here as a post-doc thinking I was only going to stay for two years.

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: And this was around 1987.

Host: Ish.

Lynn Rothschild: Ish. Ish. And the result was I ended up staying and eventually being hired as a civil servant and made this my career.

Host: Wow. Okay. So when you came in, has it always been focusing on like Earth science kind of stuff, I’m guessing? Or is it a mix?

Lynn Rothschild: Not really. But NASA is sort of strange because, when you say Earth science to most people listening, they think of geology, for example.

Host: Absolutely. Yeah. Totally.

Lynn Rothschild: Right. Whereas, NASA Earth science means something completely different. It means using space to look back at planet Earth. And then, of course, we have the aeronautics. And then, the rest of NASA is really focused on going forth from planet Earth whether it’s to our near neighbors like the moon or even ISS, the Space Station, which is even closer than the moon —

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: — or beyond, whether you’re talking about Mars or Enceladus or Europa or Pluto or other galaxies far, far beyond and, you know, blah, blah, blah. So Earth science is looking back on the Earth. It’s not necessarily just geology. It’s also biology. But I actually came in to a group that was very interested in looking for life elsewhere in the universe, which is what I was —

Host: Wow.

Lynn Rothschild: — and from early evolution, which is what I was doing. And so I quickly went from continuing on my thesis sort of work on the evolution of chloroplasts to using ecosystems in extreme environments as a way to get an idea of life on early Earth and what the limits might be for ecosystems elsewhere in our environment. And that’s when I started going to places like Baja, California, and Yellowstone and all that sort of stuff.

Host: Did you do the whole Chile kind of thing? Everybody talks about the Atacama Desert and —

Lynn Rothschild: Well, better than that. I actually did do Bolivia a couple of times where we drove through the Atacama. That was just part of our commute to work. So we ultimately ended up at 15,000 feet above the Atacama. And that was very cool because — well, it was cool. These are high deserts. The oxygen level is low enough that you notice. Obviously, it’s not like outer space. There’s enough that you can breathe.

Host: Yeah.

Lynn Rothschild: But you do notice that you do take medication for a few days before so that you can start to get your efficiency up. So the ultraviolet radiation levels are very high, which I’ve been very interested in measuring. So there are a lot of very cool parts about going there.

But yes, we did that. I did a very interesting field trip into the outback in Australia to a radioactive pond. Let’s see — two field trips to Rift Valley in Kenya, which is some of the highest pH lakes in the world; of course Yellowstone for the low pH, high temperature; one to New Zealand for the also low pH, high temperature. You know, extreme environment — I was there.

So did a lot of that for many years and then a lot of work in the lab following through on this sort of thing, hunting for new organisms that could deal with different levels of things, understanding a bit how they function, looking at the diversity and all that sort of stuff.

Host: Thinking of NASA as a place that looks for life on other planets, we have a perfect example of a planet right underneath our feet to help learn —

Lynn Rothschild: Well, it’s not — let me say it’s not a perfect example.

Host: OK, an interesting…

Lynn Rothschild: It’s the only example.

Host: [laughs]

Lynn Rothschild: That’s the problem. And as I’ve been explaining to people, it would be like saying, “I read one book. So therefore, I’m qualified to be a professor of English literature.”

Host: Very true.

Lynn Rothschild: You would laugh at me and say, “One book? Ha, ha.” But that’s the position we’re in with looking for life in the universe. We only have one book. So the question is, from what we know about this one book, do we have a good grasp of what life might be like elsewhere? Or is it just that we read one book?

And I think the best example there is looking at our own solar system. Now, up to fairly recently, we only had an example of one solar system that we really knew anything about. And that was our own little solar system, you know, Mercury, Venus, Earth, you know, blah, blah, blah.

But it turns out with the missions like the Kepler mission, which we’re of course very proud of because it’s a NASA Ames mission —

Host: Yes.

Lynn Rothschild: Yes. Yes. Yes. We now know about literally thousands of solar systems. And it turns out that we are not typical. We’re atypical. So what if it turned out that we knew about 3,000 different life forms, and it turns out that we were not typical? We were atypical. We don’t know. We don’t even have a second example of life.

Host: Yeah.

Lynn Rothschild: So like I say, it’s not that we have a perfect example here. It’s the only one we’ve got.

Host: We have a example.

Lynn Rothschild: Right.

Host: Just one.

Lynn Rothschild: One. Exactly.

Host: But it’s also really interesting of what we typically know about biology and life. But then, as you’re talking about, finding life in the most extreme cases where we probably would never assume that anything would be alive.

Lynn Rothschild: Right. So the reason we’re interested in that — of course, we humans in general, not NASA —

Host: Yes. We — yes. Yes.

Lynn Rothschild: Putting on my hat that I occasionally wear as a human being, we’re interested in life in extreme environments because they have biotech potential. They give us an idea of the diversity of life on Earth and so on and so forth. But in terms of the astrobiology, the looking for life elsewhere, the reason we’re interested in this is because out there was a universe with habitable bodies, whether they’re moons or planets or even asteroids, that are not all like planet Earth.

So say we find something that’s just a little bit hotter or a little bit colder or a little bit whatever. Now, we have to start by looking at what the limits are for life on Earth and see if it overlaps. So if we know of an organism on the Earth, for example, that can live in basically boiling battery acid —

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: — like pH zero and boiling, and we find a place elsewhere like — well, we might have found on Venus —

Host: Yeah.

Lynn Rothschild: — if we’d gotten there a billion years ago, whatever.

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: Anyway, if we find a place like that, we don’t just laugh and say, “That’s boiling battery acid. We’ve seen that before.” We do say, “It’s boiling battery acid. We’ve seen that before, and it had life in it.”

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: Now, it doesn’t mean that there’s life there. It doesn’t mean it’s the same life. But it says it’s at least possible.

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: Now, that then — so it gives you an idea of the minimum envelope for life by understanding the extremes of life on the Earth. But that sort of segues into what I’ve been doing the last eight or nine years at NASA. And that is focusing I guess much of my attention — but my heart is still in the astrobiology. And actually, I do do some Earth science as well, looking back at planet Earth because I do happen to live on Earth. And it is our only example of life.

Host: A little biased.

Lynn Rothschild: And I obviously am very interested in things like phytoplankton blooms and harmful algal blooms and so on.

Host: Like most of us are, of course. [laughs]

Lynn Rothschild: Yeah. Because my heart is still in the microbes. So yes, I am. But about eight or nine years ago, I was asked to start a program in synthetic biology for the agency.

Host: Okay. Cool.

Lynn Rothschild: So what synthetic biology is all about is using life as a technology. So we’re used to, at NASA, dealing with things that have an on/off switch because, to a large extent, we are a tech organization. But we’re like, you know, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. And you send the rocket ship off into space —

Host: Yeah.

Lynn Rothschild: — and heat shields and propulsion systems and EDL, entry, descent and landing.

Host: Yeah.

Lynn Rothschild: I bet you didn’t think I knew all those things. So yeah, we’ve been all about that kind of thing. But we now are in an age of bioengineering where life is presenting itself more and more as a viable technological alternative.

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: And that includes some of the things that I was talking about a moment ago about life in the extremes. So let’s go back to the idea of what happens if I have a colleague who is an astronomer, maybe someone who has been looking at the Kepler data and says to me, “Lynn, I have found the perfect habitable body. The only thing is you tell me that the highest-temperature organism on the Earth lives at 121, 122 Celsius so about the boiling temperature of water but, you know, not that much.”

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: So this place is perfect. But it’s at 130. Do I have to cross it off the list? I’ve been joking, you know, do I send them away crying? And you know, the thought of an astronomer crying is, you know —

Host: Holding their head in shame.

Lynn Rothschild: Shame and upset, you know. And then, you’ve got to hand them a Kleenex. And you know, you don’t want to see an astronomer cry.

Host: It’s a whole ordeal.

Lynn Rothschild: Right. It’s a whole ordeal. So I don’t want to do that, of course.

Host: Of course.

Lynn Rothschild: So I say, no, no, no, no. You know, sit down. Blow your nose. Let’s see if we can make an organism that could live under those conditions.

Host: Wow. Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: So in general, we’re not talking about making things from scratch. We’re talking about tweaking. So we have an — and some of my students have done this. They call it the “hell cell” project, which I love.

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: So you take an organism that maybe can normally only live up to 80 or 100. And you give it some extra genes that maybe could allow it to live at a higher temperature. Now, it turns out high temperature is a relatively difficult thing to do.

Host: Yeah.

Lynn Rothschild: But say you take an organism and you give it a few extra genes to allow it to live at pH zero or maybe below so in a very acidic environment. And then, you can say, well, if this planet is very acidic and cold and this and that, we can mix and match genes that would not normally be found in nature together. I mean, when I say would not normally, we have not found them in nature together.

Host: Yes. At least so far.

Lynn Rothschild: And we just put them together and say, okay. We now have an example of an organism that could have lived there or could live there. And so yes. This is still on the suspect list. So I see synthetic biology as a way to expand our envelope for life without even having to get onto a rocket ship. However, there are a lot of other reasons that NASA is interested in synthetic biology.

And the big thing is enabling human exploration. Now, our big pro — I’ve just been in a meeting in Washington. And people are talking about actually making biosensors. And the concern was mass market and getting them to point-of-care diagnostics and so on. And then, they’re concerned about, you know, beating the current economy. If someone is used to looking through a microscope for a diagnosis instead of using this, how do you get them to switch and all that?

Host: Yeah.

Lynn Rothschild: None of this is our problem. This is not our problem. Our problem is getting people or robots into space and being successful in their missions and sending back the science and the technology and so on that we need. So our problem isn’t worrying about, well, what if you upset the farmers here because they’re using this and the petrochemical industry. But our problem is up mass, worrying about fighting gravity. We’re not fighting another company. We’re fighting gravity. And that is an incredibly expensive thing to be fighting —

Host: Yes.

Lynn Rothschild: — and also volume to some extent because, if you’re taking up some space in a rocket ship, for one thing you’re not being able to use it for something else. And so if we can dramatically decrease the amount that we have to launch into space, that should be able to greatly expand what we can do in space. So now, let’s go back to this idea of life as a technology. You tell me of any other technology that is modular, self-replicating, self-repairing, can grow, doesn’t need a petrochemical input, does not need an electrical input. You know, and I could go on and on. But if you start thinking of life as a technology, there are a lot of things we can do, even something as bizarre as maybe generating electricity.

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: You and I are both doing that right now. I’m assuming —

Host: Yeah. Your brain’s synapse firing —

Lynn Rothschild: Exactly. Exactly. Now, we don’t get our brains and our synapses to fire and generate electricity by plugging ourselves into a socket in the morning. No. In fact, we —

Host: Well, maybe once when you’re little.

Lynn Rothschild: Right.

Host: But then, you learn.

Lynn Rothschild: We do not recommend this.

Host: Then, you learn. Yeah.

Lynn Rothschild: We do not recommend this. However, you may well have eaten lunch today or had breakfast. At some point, you ate. And so what you’re doing — your body is converting that chemical energy into electrical energy. The electric eel certainly does that. You know, every sentient organism does that. There are even some bacteria.

So why not sort of mix and match these genes and take advantage of using chemical energy to generate electrical energy, for example? But let’s dial it back from the really Star-Trekky stuff to even something that’s very obvious, and that is food. Okay. You may have seen The Martian.

Host: Yes.

Lynn Rothschild: Growing food on Mars is going to be somewhat of a challenge. There are things like perchlorates in the soil. But we do know bacteria on the Earth that deal with high levels of perchlorates. And they’ve got detoxifications mechanisms. Why not put those genes in the potato plant that the Martian used and, therefore, be able to use–

Host: Give it a boost.

Lynn Rothschild: — yeah — use the Martian regolith to grow it without a lot of treatment? Or think about — you know, anything you eat has been grown. So if you could do it more efficiently off planet or maybe use biology for chemistry as we’ve been doing literally for millions of years, making alcohol, making material products. I don’t know exactly what your clothes are made of. I’m wearing a lot of cotton today.

Host: Yeah.

Lynn Rothschild: Cotton, of course, is made by cotton plants. And that’s about 95 percent cellulose. We have bacteria that make 100 percent cellulose.

Host: Wow.

Lynn Rothschild: Why not take some of those capabilities, the ability to make wool, for example, keratin, the ability to make silk or even spider silk, which is supposed to be stronger than Kevlar or even making Kevlar itself, which some of my students have been working on —

Host: Really?

Lynn Rothschild: Why not take those biological capabilities, put them in a form factor like a yeast cell, something like you bake bread with and take that with you to Mars? So then, you can start making these products because we’re not going to be able to take sheep and trees and silk worms and —

Host: Or bread makers. [laughs]

Lynn Rothschild: Right.

Host: And like looms.

Lynn Rothschild: But we can take the capabilities with us. And that is one of the great promises of synthetic biology I think for NASA is this ability to take this genetic hardware story that we have on the Earth, maybe augment it by making a few new capabilities, put it in different form factors so that you’re not hauling up sheep and so on and use that to enable human missions.

Imagine an astronaut gets sick, for example, on Mars. And you can’t possibly bring every drug that has ever been invented. And even if you could, they would go bad. And there may be other ones invented. But a lot of them are made by organisms. So you have your little tiny production facility on Mars. And someone gets — when an astronaut gets sick and a doctor says, you know, this would be the perfect drug for it.

So another astronaut who is feeling a little bit better receives the information on how to make this piece of DNA on Mars. They go ahead, synthesize it, pop it in a bacterium. The bacterium makes an augmented yogurt or just a pure chicken soup sort of thing. You give it to the astronaut. The astronaut is fine.

So that actually illustrates another point of the synthetic biology. Where is the point that you don’t have to have the physical continuum? So our DNA, our genetic information is a digital code just like you have in a computer and so on.

Host: Exactly.

Lynn Rothschild: So there’s no reason now that we’ve cracked that code thanks to Watson and Crick and all the great molecular biologists who have come after that. We don’t actually have to physically take the code. We just need to send that information, that coding information elsewhere. And then, you can make the physical capabilities there. And so that’s also gotten to be a very cool thing with synthetic biology is breaking that physical link.

Host: It’s fascinating seeing the connection of space and biology, all of these different fields all coming together.

Lynn Rothschild: Absolutely.

Host: Yeah. It’s amazing.

Lynn Rothschild: So synthetic biology is actually a little bit unusual for NASA in that, usually, when we’re involved in a technology, we are either the leaders or the only people in the world who do it. So something like heat shields — your average company doesn’t care about heat shields in reentry vehicles and, you know —

Host: Somebody has got to care about those things.

Lynn Rothschild: Right.

Host: We got it.

Lynn Rothschild: So we do.

Host: Yes.

Lynn Rothschild: But synthetic biology is very different for us in that there is a huge external investment primarily in the United States, Europe, United Kingdom and a few other countries.

Host: Obviously, there’s commercial aspects.

Lynn Rothschild: Right.

Host: Everybody is interested in the science —

Lynn Rothschild: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Host: — because NASA can use it, but so can other sectors.

Lynn Rothschild: Right. And so since there is such a big investment with the national agencies, the military agencies for potential use — and it’s not necessarily sinister. We’re not talking about biological warfare but maybe making a better shield or being able to store blood for the battlefield better, you know, whatever as well as, certainly, the commercial interests, making —

Host: Hospitals and —

Lynn Rothschild: — yeah, and better diagnostics and making products like insulin is made transgenically. I know companies that are starting to use synthetic biology to make new perfumes and scents and all sorts of things. And it’s not that it’s artificial. It’s exactly the same molecule. But you’re not having to rip up orchids or whatever to do it, that you can make a pure form.

So there are lots of — all these other commercial and government and military and blah, blah, blah interests. And so the important thing for NASA here is to keep our eyes and ears open to what the outside community is doing that we can adapt for our own use, leverage that investment, and then we bring a couple of things to the table.

For example, this idea that we don’t have to compete with an existing commercial infrastructure or a petrochemical industry or anything like that, that we can be free to try things that maybe would not be competitive on the Earth right now. But we’re able to explore this application or technology. And maybe it will revolutionize the Earth as well as space at some point.

Host: Or stuff that, you know, a company wouldn’t be able to invest in because you wouldn’t see any fruits of that for years down the road.

Lynn Rothschild: Exactly.

Host: And they wouldn’t even be around in that time.

Lynn Rothschild: Exactly. And I’ve been very fortunate to get a couple of grants from NASA from a program — NIAC program —

Host: Wow.

Lynn Rothschild: — which specifically looks at futuristic sorts of technologies that we might be using in 10, 20, 30 years. So we actually had one on bioprinting, which we’re continuing making structural materials, printing cells that can then produce whatever material.

So imagine, for example, a bone now. The Neanderthals — I think we have evidence — built huts out of bone. If you tried to get permission to build a house in Silicon Valley out of bone or basically anywhere in the world, you would probably be not only flatly turned down for a permit, there would probably be other sorts of repercussions.

Host: Yes.

Lynn Rothschild: But maybe bone is a perfectly good building material. So what if I could take cells and engineer them to secrete the various bits of a bone just like you’re doing in your body now —

Host: Okay.

Lynn Rothschild: — I’m doing — so it’s not anything exotic. It’s just taking it out and —

Host: We’re used to it.

Lynn Rothschild: — printing the right confirmation so that you could make beams or sheets of bone, and you could use it as a building material. You would probably call it something else to hide it. But why not? You know, so you have all these potential things. But anyway, we can try these things. As I explained earlier, we have this long-standing — the agency has a long-standing interest in life in extreme environments, which also has a lot of potential applications for synthetic biology because there are times that you may well want to do a process at a very high temperature or low temperature, high pH or low pH for various reasons.

Host: Yeah.

Lynn Rothschild: And so we have been the leaders in that. And we’ve also been the leaders in origin-of-life research over literally decades. And so sometimes, you may be taking approaches where you’re re-evolving a capability, or you’re going back and looking at what early life might have done or what the alternate routes are for synthetic biology. So I believe that we have a very interesting but important niche in this federal and international ecosystem of synthetic biology, small but important.

Host: Excellent. Well, I have a feeling you’re going to be our returning Jeopardy champion because this just flies by. It’s completely fascinating. So for people who are listening, if you have any questions for Lynn, we’re using the #NASASiliconValley. We are on Twitter @NASAAmes. Feel free to shoot us any information, and we’ll loop in with Lynn. This has been amazing.

Lynn Rothschild: Well, thank you. I’ve had a great time.