Sunday, July 20, 2014

Astrobiology and Looking Way, Way Back

From now on, whenever I grab a cup of coffee at le Petit Café, I’m going to give silent thanks to Loren Williams for his persistent badgering about 20 years ago, when he was part of the committee that planned the building I work in, home of the Parker H. Petit Institute of Bioengineering and Bioscience.


“Every meeting I’d say, ‘I want a coffee shop.’ They were talking about designing bathrooms, labs, offices, and I kept saying that I wanted a coffee shop. I’m from Seattle,” says Williams, who kept hammering away at the committee’s leader, Bob Nerem (founding director of the Petit Institute). “Finally Bob said, ‘If you shut up, we’ll get a coffee shop.’”


Williams is a chemist who calls himself an ‘astrobiologist,’ which is one of those professions that hasn’t quite been fully realized yet, like ‘time traveller.’ Come to think of it, he’s kind of a time traveller, too. 


“An astrobiologist, generally, is somebody who studies life in the whole universe,” says Williams, who directs the NASA-funded Center for Ribosomal Origins and Evolution (Ribo Evo) at Georgia Tech. “Part of that is trying to determine if there is life beyond Earth, and part of that is trying to understand the organic chemistry within our solar system, in space.”


In considering the possibility of extraterrestrial life, and looking for the cosmic chemistry that may herald such life, Williams and his team are peeling away billions of years of evolution to understand prebiotic processes of Earth.


“Our primary focus is on understanding life on the ancient Earth, and we’re looking all the way back, four billion years,” says Williams, who thinks of it as rewinding the tape of life. Instead of cutting into an old tree to read about the climate 200 years ago, his lab uses the ribosome to study ancient biology, or pre-biology. The ribosome is the oldest macromolecular assembly of extant life, a molecular fossil imprinted with clues from the dawn of existence.


“Part of NASA’s mandate is to study the Earth, the history and the future of life, its part of their job,” Williams says. “If we want to know what to look for on Mars or Titan or another place, the ancient Earth serves as a good proxy.”


Maybe it’s fitting that a guy who looks back into prehistory for clues about life’s origins (and hints for what to look for on distant worlds) should have one of the most prehistoric-looking websites on the Georgia Tech campus. Looks can be deceiving. This is a case of ugly duck syndrome gone amok. 


His site,, is a cyber relic, a homely homemade site that Williams created in 1992, and he hasn't updated the look since, writing the html code himself. But if you go his site and click the “Molecular Interactions” link, it takes you to the most visited site on the World Wide Web (according to Google) for, well … molecular interactions.


Go ahead and do a Google search. You don’t need quote marks. There at the top of 9.9 million search results for molecular interactions is a tool that Williams created, and updates, and has even translated to Spanish to reach a wider audience.


“I originally wrote that up for my students and put it on the web, because it seemed like a safe place to have it, and they could have access. Somebody put a counter on my site and wondered why I was getting hundreds of downloads a day. It was that document,” Williams says. “Ten people are reading it at any given time, students all over the world, every day. I swear I didn’t do that on purpose. It just seemed like a good way to organize my stuff and not lose it."


So, Williams is a world-renowned scientist in one the world's leading institutes for training engineers, and he'll happily explain the difference between the two professions. 


"Engineering and science are two very different things. For example, you'd never want to drive across a bridge built by a physicist," he says. "But if the bridge fell down, and you really want to understand gravity, don't ask an engineer."

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