John Rummel, evolutionary ecologist

He protected Earth from alien microbes, and he knows why we should thank the Russians for NASA's mission to find life on Mars. Interview by Adam Mann

May 25, 2010

Photo courtesy of John Rummel

Slap a pair of black sunglasses on John Rummel and he might bear a passing resemblance to Tommy Lee Jones's character from the movie "Men in Black." Fitting, considering that Rummel has worked as NASA's Planetary Protection Officer not once, but twice. His task was to prevent microbes from hitching a ride on probes shooting between our planet and other bodies in the solar system. Or, as he sometimes puts it, "saving the universe from the scum of the Earth."

Following the controversial Viking mission results in the 1970s that found no signs of life on Mars, few scientists sought extraterrestrials in the solar system. But during Rummel's two terms at NASA—from 1986 to 1993 and 1999 to 2008—researchers discovered Earthly organisms thriving in extreme environments, such as boiling hot springs, arid deserts, and deep-sea volcanic vents. Rummel expanded exobiology funding and oversaw a study to determine the best possible Martian landing sites that could focus on astrobiology. NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, a rover that will scour the soil on Mars for microbial life, will likely land at one of these sites after its planned 2011 launch.

When not thinking about life elsewhere, Rummel has focused on creatures here at home. Between his NASA stints, he directed research and education at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. There, he studied squid mating habits and developed courses for summer students. He now directs the Institute for Coastal Science and Policy at East Carolina University, where researchers record and study rising sea levels in North Carolina to help residents deal with the results. By looking at past sea level changes, institute scientists hope to develop policies for sustainable coastal fishing and living conditions.

Rummel spoke about the last 50 years of exobiology research at the 2010 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego this February. SciCom's Adam Mann got him to delve into his own history.

You have been through many different careers. What is your background?

I was an undergraduate at the University of Colorado in environmental biology and then spent five years as a naval officer on a flight crew. After that I went to grad school at Stanford in evolutionary ecology. I did a postdoc at NASA Ames Research Center [in Mountain View, California] in controlled ecological life-support systems, the third year of which turned into being in charge of exobiology at NASA headquarters, kind of without trying.

What do you mean without trying? You just fell into it?

Well, in my opinion one of the things that NASA has never done very well is succession planning. At first, I was just going to help Don DeVincenzi, who was a chemist running the exobiology curriculum. The offer was for me to work on life-support systems because of my flight crew background. That was in June of 1986. In July, Don said, "Would you mind spending a little time on exobiology?" By the middle of July, I was working 25% on that program, then 50%, and by mid-September, Don called me up and said, "I'm going to leave. Would you mind running the program for a little bit?" And that turned into seven years.

During your administration, NASA worked with Soviet scientists on the possibility of life beyond Earth. What came from that?

"We sat and talked in the Hilton hotel, and Ivanov said to me, 'I vant you to remember zis one word: 'chemoautolithotroph."

The Soviet Union and the Americans had gotten together and signed an agreement in 1987 to engender future space cooperation, including a joint working group on exobiology. A very smart guy named Misha Ivanov represented the Russian side. He came to Washington, along with his little KGB babysitter, one day before we had formal team meetings. We sat and talked in the Hilton hotel, and Ivanov said to me, "I vant you to remember zis one word: chemoautolithotroph" [bacteria that use minerals as an energy source].

Why did he believe that was important?

The Soviets had studied the microbial communities at volcanoes in Kamchatka, and they felt something similar could happen on Mars. At NASA we also had some researchers who discovered an organism named Shewanella oneidensis that basically eats rocks pretty well. But it was Ivanov's ideas that really explained to the rock jocks, the people interested in Mars, how there could potentially be life that hadn't been discovered by Viking. That was our first opportunity to be very serious about exobiology on Mars again.

You worked with the Russians until 1993. Was there any disruption with the fall of the USSR?

I heard there was a day at one of our research sites, Bunker Hills Oasis, in Antarctica, when the Russian flags got changed, the KGB guy got beaten up, and then everybody moved on from there. [Laughs]

You left NASA in 1993 to run research and education at the Marine Biological Laboratory. What kind of work goes on there?

MBL is the nation's oldest marine private marine lab, formed in 1888. They have an education program that focuses mostly on graduate and professional education. During the summers, there are 1200 people there. I was in charge of divvying up research money, so all 1200 always wanted something from me.

Did your training at NASA help with the job?

Even though it says marine biological labs, up until much more recently the focus has been on using marine organisms to tell us about basic biology. So in that regard it's got the same philosophy as exobiology. At NASA, we didn't just want to find life out there. We want to use knowledge about Earth life and—if we're lucky—extraterrestrial life to learn about biology as a general subject.

At the end of the decade, you went back to NASA. How did that come about?

I was researching squid reproduction at MBL for half my time. For the rest, I worked on opportunities in evolutionary biology for NASA Ames. Michael Meyer, the Planetary Protection Officer at the time, was looking to move on. He called me up and asked if I had anyone in mind that could do his job. I said, "You know, Mike, I might be willing to do that if I can do it half time and from here." And so that's what I did. It gave me an opportunity to use what I developed in planetary protection earlier, and was a lot of fun.

How long did your split duties last?

It would have lasted longer, but the activist NASA administrator, Mr. [Daniel] Goldin, read an article about me in an airplane magazine. He said, "This is a responsible job and it should be done at headquarters. Either fire him or bring him here." And what he basically meant was that sounds like way too much fun for anyone working for me to have. [Laughs] So I had to come back to Washington starting in 1999.

What duties does the Planetary Protection Officer have?

Effectively, you prescribe regulations that people need to take in order to protect planets from inadvertent microbial contamination and protect the Earth from things that have been brought back. It's a cool job. You get a cool title and you get to wear sunglasses.

I read an open letter to you from 2000 to not allow a Mars sample return. What was the gripe?

Ah yes, Barry DiGregorio and the International Commission Against Mars Sample Return. Barry is concerned that there might be life on Mars and that we'll bring it back in some sort of uncontrolled way.

Is that founded on anything?

Our plans for a Mars sample return determined that it's conceptually possible to bring back a sample and examine it in a biosafety level-4 facility [the level required to work with dangerous organisms that pose a high risk for fatal disease in humans]. But any concerns have to be moderated by the fact that there is already some sort of exchange going on. Forty kilograms of Mars meteorites hit the Earth every year [ejected into space from asteroid impacts on Mars].

Where do you think is best place to look for life outside the Earth?

If I were deciding to live off the Earth, Jupiter's moon Europa is a real good opportunity. It's got chemical disequilibrium, both because of the radiation on the outside and the potential for tidally driven magnetism on the seafloor. That makes for a nice picture.

You left NASA in 2006 to work at East Carolina University. What sort of work is going on there?

It's mostly coastal science and policy. They worry about the productivity of the coastal marshes and the ability of the environment to support fisheries and management. We've got folks with good records of sea level rise over the last 8,000 years, plus a number of affiliated scientists who can show you the record of sea level in North Carolina over the last 200,000 years. There's also the geological component that people have to take into account. There was a glacial mass that used to push Virginia down. When it left [10,000 years ago], Virginia started to rise. The geological system responds to that like a teeter-totter. When Virginia goes up, Carolina has to come down.

Can we mitigate the effects of climate change?

It's an interesting problem right now because you've got both the rich and the poor being affected. You have the health of the coastal system being determined by decisions made out of both parts of the political spectrum, as well. I think that mitigation is something we would like to do with some of the non-climactic effects. But mitigating against climate change, that's a dicey business to get into. The Earth didn't come up with sea level rise just because we went through the sins of the Industrial Revolution.

What would you say is connective thread between all the different jobs you've had?

I think I've always been interested in ecosystems and how organisms interact with their environment in order to make it either habitable or not habitable.

So, what's your next move?

At the Institute, we're looking at creating a national ocean policy. That means worrying about at least three levels of U.S. government and at least one or two more outside the country. But America has no real experience with doing that in a productive way, just a lot of experience doing it in an unproductive way.

Adam Mann, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned his bachelor's degree in astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley. He has worked as a reporting intern at the news office of the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and the Monterey County Herald; this spring, he will write for the daily news service of Science, ScienceNOW. After graduation he will work in Washington D.C. for six months as a science writing intern at Nature.

© 2010 Adam Mann