Nobelist Richard Roberts, director of bioinformatics at New England Biolabs in Beverly, Mass., was recently appointed to a NASA panel tasked with making sure that budget cuts don’t destroy plans to do meaningful scientific research on the International Space Station.
Roberts serves on the advisory panel for the NASA Astrobiology Institute, but nonetheless said it was “a bit of a surprise” to be appointed to the space station task force. “They want to be sure that when they cut the budget, they do it in a way that won’t jeopardize good science,” he said.
One priority, he added, would be making sure that the unique environment of the orbiting laboratory is exploited. “I’m hoping to find out a lot more about what is possible. We don’t just want to do something that can be done in space but equally can be done on Earth.”
Roberts, who maintains the Rebase database of information on microorganism restriction enzymes (http://rebase.neb.com/rebase/rebase. html), said that his focus on the bioinformatics of bacteria reflects his main interest when it comes to space station science: the search for life elsewhere in the solar system. “We’re especially interested in microbes. A lot of our bioinformatics is based on bacterial genomes, and microbes can live in very harsh conditions,” he said.
“My secret hope is that before I die, we’ll discover that there is life on Mars and that we’re derived from it. Perhaps we’re all Martians,” he said.
Roberts shared the 1993 Nobel Prize with Phillip Sharp for the discovery that genes consist of protein-coding exons interspersed with non-coding DNA sequences called introns. He is also active in the Public Library of Science initiative, an advocacy group pressuring publishers to make articles freely available online within six months of their original publication.