Buick: Follow The H2O Or Energy, Not Selection

Roger Buick, a native Australian, not only looks like a “rock star” with his long dark hair swept to one side and has the name to match, he actually is one. That is, he studies rocks and evidence of sulfur eating bacteria and pre-Snowball …

Roger Buick & Nasa: Follow The H2O Or Energy Not Selection

By Suzan Mazur

Also see: Video of Buick’s Rockefeller University Evolution Lecture in May

Roger Buick, a native Australian, not only looks like a “rock star” with his long dark hair swept to one side and has the name to match, he actually is one. That is, he studies rocks and evidence of sulfur eating bacteria and pre-Snowball Earth eukaryotes and such, while thinking about the possibility of life on Mars. Buick is the University of Washington Professor of Earth and Space Sciences and Astrobiology, who in 2001, along with Yanan Shen and Donald Canfield, found the oldest visible evidence on Earth (in Australian rock) for a specific metabolic life process. When you see him — we met at the Rockefeller University Evolution symposium in May where his lecture was the crowd pleaser http://www.rockefeller.edu/evolution/video.php?src=buick_low — you get the sense he’s been somewhere you’d definitely like to go.

During the Rockefeller symposium cocktail hour, Buick informed me I’d upset the carefully delivered lecture of Harvard’s Andrew Knoll (“it’s natural selection every step of the way”) by introducing a question from the floor about Stuart Newman’s hypothesis that the 35 or so modern animal phyla self-organized by the time of the Cambrian explosion a half billion years ago without a genetic recipe (let’s hope Nature magazine’s followup on Altenberg 16: An Exposé of the Evolution Industry in the next issue corrects the reporting mistakes of Science and focuses on Altenberg’s real headliner –Stuart Newman).

In addressing the American Astronomical Society’s annual meeting in Seattle in 2006, Roger Buick made this assessment of the budding field of astrobiology:
“We don’t know much yet, but it’s going to be a huge amount of fun finding out . . . And everyone has something to contribute.”
Buick has a PhD (with distinction) in geology and geophysics, and a BSc (Honors 1st class) in zoology and geology from the University of Western Australia where he also lectured in the School of Geosciences (tenured). He was a postdoc fellow at Harvard. For several years along the way, he worked with Sipa, BHP and other mining companies as an exploration geologist.

Our recent phone interview about astrobiology follows.
Suzan Mazur: NASA mineralogist Robert Hazen mentioned to me yesterday that there are about 1,000 researchers in the NASA astrobiology program. Are you involved in the program and in what capacity?

Roger Buick: Yes. I’ve got grant funding from the NASA Astrobiology Exobiology and Evolution Program and I’m also affiliated with the NASA Astrobiology Institute through the University of Arizona. And when the University of Washington was one of the NAI teams, I was involved in that too. They’re currently not funded.

Suzan Mazur: They’re not funded?

Roger Buick: The University of Washington team isn’t affiliated with NASA Astrobiology Institute anymore. There’s a team called the Virtual Planetary Laboratory, which is a very dispersed team, and the principal investigator on that team, Vikki Meadows, is at the University of Washington but nobody else at the University of Washington is supported through NAI.

Suzan Mazur: So your lab at the University of Washington is not supported.

Roger Buick: Not by the NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Suzan Mazur: Can you talk about your lab?

Roger Buick: Yes. We have a great lab. Four of us from different departments have collaborated to build the lab. We now have five mass spectrometers and we can analyze stable isotopes from rocks, liquids, gases for about five or six different light elements. So we can look at oceanographic processes, paleoclimatic processes, atmospheric processes. And also deep time. Biological evolution through biological isotopic fractionation within old rocks.

Suzan Mazur: I’d like to get into more of your work later in the interview, but getting back to the funding aspect of this story – Bob Hazen also said that a lot of money is being put into astrobiology not only from NASA but from other government agencies. I suppose one of those is the Defense Department. I was wondering if you had any concern about academics being co-opted into the program because that’s where the money is? I mean even the American Philosophical Society is partnering with NASA to provide grants.

Roger Buick: I don’t think academics ever get co-opted into anything. But they do tend to follow the money. There’s no coercion in it. Academics are greedy for cash like anybody else.

Suzan Mazur; But there’s a genuine interest in the Astrobiology program, it’s not just that’s where the money is.

Roger Buick: Oh yes. Before astrobiology was invented, people were interested in astrobiology. You just have to look at the student interest in astrobiology. They’re not following money. They have very little clue about what research money does for science. On the undergraduate and graduate level, there are a large number of students who respond enormously to anything astrobiological.

I teach a lot of courses that aren’t astrobiology, but whenever I throw something astrobiological into one of my non-astrobiological courses – it’s the part of the course that really grabs the student. You can see them light up!

Suzan Mazur: When was astrobiology invented? And what does it consist of – what areas?

Roger Buick: It consists of almost everything. It was invented in about the late 90s.

Suzan Mazur: 1998 or something.

Roger Buick: Yes. Some time around there.

Suzan Mazur: By the way I had a subsequent conversation with philosopher Jerry Fodor regarding his comment to me earlier this year that “Astrobiology doesn’t exist. What are its laws?” He’s updated his remarks and now says the following: “I did?” Fodor said he doesn’t know the field.

Roger Buick: But the interest has been there since Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. That’s what they were writing about.

Suzan Mazur: If Fodor says he doesn’t know astrobiology, there just may be others. .

Do you think that the private sector — scholars, for example — should be able to share in a piece of the NASA pie? I think that of the $17.5 billion 2008 budget, something like only $200 million was requested for innovative partnering programs for small businesses, etc. Proportionally a tiny amount.

Roger Buick: I’m not in favor of any government subsidy to private industry groups.

Suzan Mazur: What about private scholars?

Roger Buick: There are very few private scholars in the United States that have the infrastructure with which to be able to participate in astrobiological research in a big way?

Suzan Mazur: Isn’t that unAmerican?

Roger Buick: Don’t ask me what’s American and unAmerican or you’ll start me toward politics. Un-American is a very pejorative term and has had a disastrous history in United States politics. I don’t think anyone should ever mention the phase “un-American”. I think of the House Committee and all that sort of stuff.

Suzan Mazur: You and your colleague, Birger Rasmussen, are credited with discovering the world’s oldest oil, which you found trapped between mineral grains of rock 3.2 billion years old.

Roger Buick: That’s correct.

Suzan Mazur: Have you approached Sotheby’s?

Roger Buick: No. Even at current oil prices, I think the value of a nano-barrel of oil is infinitesimally small.

Suzan Mazur: Then in 2001, along with Yanan Shen and Donald Canfield you found what’s considered the oldest life on Earth in Australian rock dating to about 3.47 billion years old?

Roger Buick: It’s not exactly the oldest evidence of life. It’s the oldest evidence of a specific metabolic process carried out by life. There are claims for older life in older rocks elsewhere in the world. But what we found was the oldest evidence for specific metabolic style, which implies the organisms responsible were as sophisticated in their biochemistry as modern organisms. It’s a claim for modern-style life. . .

The work with Shen and Canfield was discovering evidence for sulfur-eating bacteria and immediately overlying that there are stromatolites. We don’t know what sort of bugs made them. They could well have been bacteria using sulfur gases for photosynthesis.

Suzan Mazur: There was an NAI report in 2001 that said:
“Buick says that the presence of sulfate-reducing bacteria almost 3.5 billion years old suggests that a wide range of microrganisms has already “colonized the early Earth” forming a rudimentary food chain.”

You’re quoted in that same article saying:

“From spectral analysis we know that there are lots of sulfate minerals on the surface of Mars. If that planet was warmer, wetter and inhabited more than 3.5 billion years ago, we might be able to find older signs of biological sulfate reduction there provided of course that NASA sends a bloody good field geologist with lots of experience of particularly ancient rocks in remote places.”

It sounds as if you have no doubt that life originated elsewhere in the Universe and colonized Earth or were you misquoted?

Roger Buick: No. Not misquoted. But what I was trying to get across is that if life had started on Mars, we might have a better chance of tracing its earliest evolution on Mars than we would on the Earth because there are very few rocks on the Earth from the first billion years of Earth history. And the 3.47 billion year old rocks from Australia that we were working on are pretty much the oldest ones that you can find on the Earth that would show evidence of this sort of metabolism. But on Mars, there’s a good geological record from the first billion years of its history. So Mars might be a better place to explore for how life started and how it initially colonizes the planet than the Earth, if there was ever life on Mars.

Suzan Mazur: Also I sense that your appearance at the Rockefeller Evolution symposium in May discussing this subject is an indication that the scientific community seems to be siding with you and not UCLA’s Bruce Runnegar. He wasn’t invited to speak. His challenge is that the sulfate in the Australian rock was reduced not by bacteria but from exposure from fluids in underwater volcanic vents. Could you comment about that? Is that challenge still there?

Roger Buick: As far as I know the data has never been published except in conference abstracts.

Suzan Mazur: Whose data?

Roger Buick: Runnegar’s. I think the debate has move on substantially, since he was making his comments. There’s a lot of new data.

Suzan Mazur: Supporting your argument and your find?

Roger Buick: Consistent with our find and inconsistent with a hydrothermal origin for that fractionation. You can look at other isotopes of the element sulfur and show that the fractionated sulfur that we found has been through atmospheric processes which would argue against a hydrothermal cause for any isotopic fractionation.

There’s an important paper in Nature by a French group, suggesting that not only was microbial sulfate reduction active but also microbes were disproportionating elemental sulfur from those rocks. If that’s correct, that would bear out my contention that there was quite a diverse microbiota living in that environment very early.

Suzan Mazur: Have you had significant dialogue with NASA regarding your involvement in a Mars investigation?

Roger Buick: It’s been suggested to me that I might be a good person to assist in a site selection for the next Mars Rover mission. Apart from that, no. I haven’t been directly involved in Mars research.

Suzan Mazur: On the subject of crystals. This is an area you can speak to?

Roger Buick: It depends on what aspect.

Suzan Mazur: On the subject of mineral evolution in relation to biological evolution, Antonio Lima-de-Faria wrote in his classic 1988 book Evolution without Selection – he’s a cytogeneticist from the University of Lund. He thinks we’re in the fourth level of evolution, the biological which was preceded by the atomic, chemical and mineral and that evolution from minerals to living organisms used four different routes – solid crystalline, liquid crystalline, quasi-crystalline and the amorphous.

He points to Schechtmanite, an alloy of manganese and aluminum displaying a five-fold symmetry that was previously considered to occur only in living organisms. He also thinks life has no beginning, that it’s a process inherent to the Universe. Says we’ve never had a theory of evolution.

Can you comment on this?

Roger Buick: There are a number of workers who consider that interactions with minerals and mineral crystals was a significant component of prebiotic chemistry. And those ideas have been around for 50 years I would guess. The first person I can think of is Graham Cairns Smith back in the late 60s, early 70s proposing that clay crystal surfaces were important for prebiotic chemistry.

A wide range of organic chemical/mineral crystal surface interactions have been proposed as significant in the origin of life. Personally, as a geologist I’m quite drawn by those models. The experimental work that has been done indeed shows that mineral crystal surfaces can assist in plausible prebiotic chemical reaction.

But I’d be surprised if it were the case that crystal surface chemistry is a complete explanation for the origin of life. The world’s a complex place and to try and pin the origin of life on one particular sort of process is a bit presumptuous.

Suzan Mazur: In our search for life elsewhere in the Universe are we looking for the right thing if we continue to insist it happened as a result of Darwinian natural selection?

Roger Buick: I don’t think that the astrobiological search for life elsewhere necessarily presupposes a Darwinian natural selection model for the origin of life. The NASA mantra is: Follow the water or follow the energy. It’s not follow the selection.

I think most astrobiologists are reasonably agnostic about how the origin of life occurred.

Suzan Mazur: It’s interesting that you’re saying this because the NASA/NAI-supported Astrobiology Primer – I don’t know if you saw that.

Roger Buick: Yes.

Suzan Mazur: The editor-in-chief is an Episcopalian priest. Natural selection was the mechanism of evolution cited and there was a small section on neutral selection. I spoke to the editor about this and he did say that there would hopefully be an update of the primer in the next couple of years.

Roger Buick: I don’t think that particular volume guides NASA space missions for this or that planet or for signs of organized life or NASA’s research agenda in astrobiology. That volume is meant to be for basic education.

Suzan Mazur: Meant for basic education? I think that’s a problem. The primer editor has a major book on astrobiology coming out next year published by Harvard University Press.

Roger Buick: Hmmm.

Suzan Mazur: I was wondering also, since you discovered the oldest oil, if you could comment on the possible existence of abiotic oil that’s now being talked about a lot.

Roger Buick: It’s an argument that’s been around for a long time. Thomas Gold wrote about it.

Suzan Mazur: I know Bob Hazen hosted a conference on it earlier this year at Carnegie. He mentioned that the Russians were very much behind the existence of abiotic oil. Is the idea of abiotic oil simply a way of prolonging the life of the oil industry? Or is abiotic oil a reality?

Roger Buick: We know that there are several different geochemical processes that can synthesize complex hydrocarbons out of very simple molecules and we also know that some of those processes may have been more active on an early Earth that had greater rates of volcanic activity, hydrothermal alteration and things like that.

So it’s at least plausible that the 3.2 billion year old oil we found did in fact have an abiotic origin. We can’t prove it one way or the other.

Suzan Mazur: Why not?

Roger Buick: We can’t chemically analyze the oil because it’s in such minute quantities. But we can go to slightly younger rocks and we can tease apart oil in those and find out what molecules it’s composed of. And when we go to rocks 2.4 billion years ago (something we published last year and the beginning of this year), you can analyze that oil in detail and you find molecules that could only have been produced by living organisms. Really complex multi-ring hydrocarbon molecules.

And if you go to every oil deposit we know of on the Earth today, and you analyze that oil – it also has these biological indicator molecules. Abiotic oil might be produced now. It might have been more significant in the past. But it’s not a significant component of any oil reservoir that we know of on Earth. And geochemistry shows that quite conclusively.

Suzan Mazur: So it’s not any kind of quick fix.

Roger Buick: It’s no kind of quick fix. But the fact that we can synthesize complex hydrocarbons out of simple molecules using geochemical processes suggests that you could in fact officially manufacture oil. But it would be at a very high cost. Whether it would be an economically viable substitute for biologically derived oil pumped out of the ground is another question.

Suzan Mazur: A final comment?

Roger Buick: Astrobiology’s great fun. It’s stretched me enormously. And I’ve loved it.


Suzan Mazur’s interest in evolution began with a flight from Nairobi into Olduvai Gorge to interview the late paleoanthropologist Mary Leakey. Because of ideological struggles, the Kenyan-Tanzanian border was closed, and Leakey was the only reason authorities in Dar es Salaam agreed to give landing clearance. The meeting followed discovery by Leakey and her team of the 3.6 million-year-old hominid footprints at Laetoli. Suzan Mazur’s reports have since appeared in the Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes, Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Archaeology, Connoisseur, Omni and others, as well as on PBS, CBC and MBC. She has been a guest on McLaughlin, Charlie Rose and various Fox Television News programs.

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