Lynn Rothschild, a research scientist at NASA Ames and Adjunct Professor at Brown University, is passionate astrobiologist focusing on the origin and evolution of life on Earth and elsewhere, while at the same time pioneering the use of synthetic biology to enable space exploration. Her research focuses on how life, particularly microbes, has evolved in the context of the physical environment, both here and potentially elsewhere. She has brought her imagination and creativity to the burgeoning field of synthetic biology, articulating a vision for the future of synthetic biology as an enabling technology for NASA’s missions, including human space exploration and astrobiology. From 2011 til 2020 she served as the faculty advisor of the Stanford-Brown iGEM team. Her lab tested these plans in space on in the PowerCell secondary payload on the DLR EuCROPIS satellite. A past-president of the Society of Protozoologists, she is a fellow of the Linnean Society of London, The California Academy of Sciences and the Explorer’s Club. She was awarded the Isaac Asimov Award from the American Humanist Association, and the Horace Mann Award from Brown University. She has been a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) fellow five times. Lynn was formerly Professor (Adjunct) at Stanford where she taught “Astrobiology and Space Exploration” for a decade.
Star Trek meets ET: (synthetic) biology as an enabling technology for space exploration
Synthetic biology – the design and construction of new biological parts and systems and the redesign of existing ones for useful purposes – is transforming fields from fuels to pharmaceuticals and beyond. Our lab has pioneered the potential of synthetic biology to revolutionize two areas of interest to NASA: astrobiology and as an enabling tool for exploration. Synthetic biology is allowing us to answer whether the evolutionary narrative that has played out on planet Earth is likely to have been unique or universal. For example, can we create organisms that expand the envelope for life, for example, radiation resistance? For exploration, we will rely increasingly on biologically-provided life support, as we have throughout our evolutionary history. But once life itself is seen as an enabling technology, we can do so much more. What about the exploration platforms themselves? Using fungi to build structures off planet? Using peptides to recycle metals from integrated circuits and provide the raw materials to build new structures in space? Building materials? Using DNA as a scaffold to create wires a atom or two in thickness? Producing pharmaceuticals and other small molecules in small quantities, on demand? Finally, Will this technology work in space? The PowerCell payload on the DLR EuCROPIS mission is designed to do just that.