SETI Institute Principal Investigator
Jennifer is a geochemist who likes to study life that walks on the wild side. Testing the extremes of biochemistry is more than just setting records, however.
Since most of the worlds beyond Earth sport conditions that are far less friendly than those of our own, it may be that the vast majority of all life is, in fact, of the extreme variety. By heating and squeezing molecules in fluids, Jennifer has learned that some fluid-based organic molecules that would simply disintegrate when heated in a laboratory beaker maintain their structure when the fluid is under pressure. This could clearly be an encouraging finding for those who hope to find, for example, life near a hot vent at the bottom of a deep, alien ocean.
She’s also learned that if you apply sudden pressure (and concomitant heat) to organic molecules, some will survive, and others will often reassemble, or polymerize, into yet more interesting biologically relevant compounds. Imagine amino acids formed in the icy interior of a comet that later smashes into a planet. Some of the amino acids will survive the impact, and others will polymerize into peptides, which is also a biologically important compound. It seems that life’s precursors don’t mind getting smashed.