ASU cosmologist explores notion of ‘alien’ life on Earth

February 19, 2009

Astrobiologists have often pondered “life as we do not know it” in the context of extraterrestrial life, says Paul">">Paul Davies, an internationally acclaimed theoretical physicist and cosmologist at Arizona State University. “But,” he asks, “has there been a blind spot to the possibility of ‘alien’ life on Earth?”

Davies challenged the orthodox view that there is only one form of life in a presentation titled “Shadow Life: Life As We Don’t Yet Know It” on Feb. 15 at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Chicago. His presentation was part of the symposium “Weird Life.” Download Full Image

“Life as we know it appears to have had a single common ancestor, yet, could life on Earth have started many times? Might it exist on Earth today in extreme environments and remain undetected because our techniques are customized to the biochemistry of known life?” asks Davies, who also is the director of the BEYOND">">BEYOND Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science at Arizona State University in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

In the symposium, Davies presented, challenged and extended some of the conclusions from a July 2007 report by the National Research Council. That report looked at whether the search for life should include “weird life” – described by the Council as “life with an alternative biochemistry to that of life on Earth.”

“If a biochemically weird microorganism should be discovered, its status as evidence for a second genesis, as opposed to a new branch on our own tree of life, will depend on how fundamentally it differs from known life,” wrote Davies in the Nov. 19, 2007, issue of Scientific American.

Davies and other pioneers who speculate that life on Earth may have started many times are wondering “why we have overlooked this idea for so long?”

The concept of a shadow biosphere, according to Davies, “is still just a theory. If someone discovers shadow life or weird life it will be the biggest sensation in biology since Darwin. We are simply saying, ‘Why not let’s take a look for it?’ It doesn’t cost much (compared to looking for weird life on Mars, say), and, it might be right under our noses.”

Davies, whose research is steeped in the branches of physics that deal with quantum gravity – an attempt to reconcile theories of the very large and the very small – is a prolific author (27 books, both popular and specialty works) and is a provocative speaker (he delivered the 1995 Templeton Prize address after receiving the prestigious award for initiating “a new dialogue between science and religion that is having worldwide repercussions”).

Among his books are: “How to Build a Time Machine,” “The Origin of Life,” “The Big Questions,” “The Last Three Minutes,” “The Mind of God,” “The Cosmic Blueprint” and his most recent book “The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the universe just right for life?” published in the United States under the title “Cosmic Jackpot.”

He is putting the finishing touches on “The Eerie Silence,” to be published in 2010 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the SETI Institute. According to Davies, the book is “a comprehensive fresh look at the entire SETI enterprise.”

Forum shows off ASU technologies

February 19, 2009

More than 50 venture capitalists, angel investors and industry executives came to campus with the sole purpose of looking under ASU’s innovation hood to see what gems of technologies are ready to come out of its laboratories. Taking part in the first ASU Tech Forum, held Feb. 12-13, they came away impressed.

“The world-class science facilities and the integrated interdisciplinary approach being adopted by the ASU faculty should yield significant innovations in the years to come,” said Chau Khuong from OrbiMed Advisors. “As a healthcare venture capital investor, I’m excited by the prospect of working with the dynamic, commercially focused administration to develop scientific discoveries into meaningful applications that advance human health.” Download Full Image

“University inventions are critically important to venture capitalists who want to build great companies,” added John Diekman, founder and managing partner of 5AM Ventures. “AzTE gave us one of the best ‘venture capital days’ I have seen. It was comprehensive, informative, efficient and well presented.”

Jason Avery, founder of Rockpool Ventures in Cambridge, U.K. noted:  “I now consider ASU as one of the most forward-thinking science faculties in the U.S.”

The Tech Forum was organized by Arizona Technology Enterprises (AzTE), the technology venturing arm of Arizona State in collaboration with ASU SkySong. It introduced the investment and corporate communities to selected research programs, technologies and startup opportunities from ASU and the University of Pennsylvania. In what is believed to be a unique relationship in higher education, ASU and Penn entered into a partnership this year to assist one another with commercialization of selected technologies for their respective universities.

“This event was a terrific way of connecting with ASU, a fast-rising research star in the university world, and Penn, an established Ivy League research center, as well as with the rest of the venture community,” said Matthew McCooe, a founder and managing partner of Chart Venture Partners.

Several faculty members made presentations on their new technologies in the life sciences, physical sciences and sustainability fields. Some of the innovations included biofuels and biomaterials derived from photosynthetic organisms, DNA and protein sequencing and detection platforms, neurostimulation technologies, synthetic antibodies, advanced battery technologies, light emitting diode substrates and low-power design methodologies.

This was ASU’s first technology forum and drew a total of more than 130 people, including over 80 external attendees, to see some of ASU’s commercially promising technologies. It was sponsored by Silicon Valley Bank, Squire Sanders and Ernst & Young.

Guests included national and international venture capitalists, angel investors, entrepreneurs and corporate executives. Venture firms represented included Harris & Harris Group, Khosla Ventures, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Redpoint Ventures, Sevin Rosen Funds and Sofinnova Ventures. Companies attending included ATMI, Boeing Company, Dow Chemical, Johnson & Johnson, Medtronic and Merck.

“All of these technologies are at the point of moving out from the university and into the marketplace,” said Charlie Lewis, vice president of venture development at AzTE. “We are creating an opportunity for VCs to potentially invest in very early stage technologies.”

Neal Woodbury, deputy director of the Biodesign Institute and a veteran researcher, was a presenter at the event. He pitched the ‘tubes in the desert’ project, which aims to generate chemical feedstocks from cyanobacteria as a replacement to petroleum-based products.

“This group is very impressive and focused in areas important to renewables,” Woodbury said of the VC’s attending the forum. “AzTE has become more sophisticated and more active in helping us from the early stages to refine our technologies into specific areas for the marketplace, so the business and science aspects are developed side by side.”

The set up for the forum focused on brevity. Each of the 13 ASU inventors got about eight minutes to talk up their innovations to groups of potential investors. They also had opportunities to speak with VC members during breaks.

The forum was geared to providing critical connections from those in the lab to those with the commercial savvy to move the technology in a marketable direction.

One of the more valuable contributions to the inventors is the view from outside the lab, Lewis said. “It helps a lot when you get external input on your invention.”

Exposure also is important.

Meeting venture capitalists “is very difficult in Arizona,” said Stuart Lindsay, an ASU Regents Professor and member of the Biodesign Institute who was presenting his DNA sequencer. “Arizona is something of a ‘wilderness’ to the VC community, which tends to focus on the coasts” (Boston, San Diego, the San Francisco bay area).

Jamie Tyler, an assistant professor in the School of Life Sciences, gave a presentation on his company Synsonix, LLC. Tyler and his colleagues are using ultrasound to achieve deep brain stimulation without surgical intervention, a method that has potential applications for people suffering from Parkinson’s disease, depression, sleep disorders, etc.

The Tech Forum provided the perfect venue for “networking and meeting people,” Tyler said. “We are looking for people we can work with to help us move our work forward and into the marketplace.”

In forming their start-up venture, Tyler added, “we received valuable counsel, assistance, and support from AzTE and ASU. AzTE closed a deal with us quickly and facilitated connections with potential investors, legal counsel and other advisors.” 

“Universities are important part of our search for unique technologies,” said Dennis Merens, a venture capitalist with Dow Venture Capital in Michigan. “We are particularly interested in sustainability technologies, as well as those in the physical sciences. We want to be involved at the early stage and what we are looking for is proof of concept and good economic outlook. Then we can provide the business expertise and marketing connections.”

“We want to assist the researchers, work with them to put together a management team that can take their technology from the lab to industry,” added Ajit Medhekar, with ARCH Venture Partners in California. “ASU has a broad range of research going on and it is an exciting place we will continue to visit.”

Lewis added that even the current down economic times, venture capitalists know it is important to stay on the hunt for new technologies to invest in and they are finding that ASU is one of the bright spots on the horizon.

“We can’t crawl into a hole in this market,” Lewis explained. “Many of these technologies address the problems we face today, like sustainability, alternative fuels and biofuels. We need to forge ahead.”

Director, Media Relations and Strategic Communications