What Happens When We Find Unknown Life?

Lynn Rothschild is engineering microorganisms in her NASA lab to understand the potential for life on other planets. Watch the full video.
March 15, 2017, 12:31am

We often get derailed in conversations about alien life by focusing on little green men and the like, but the reality of trying to find life is much more profound: As astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild told us, we really only have one data point for understanding what life is. How then do we define life? What if it's significantly more diverse than we understand?

This is one classic solution to the Fermi paradox: maybe we haven't found alien life yet because we simply can't comprehend forms alternative to what we see on Earth. Perhaps, in essence, our definition of life is too narrow. If that were the case, just about everything we understand about life on Earth would be thrown up in the air.

These are the types of questions Rothschild explores in her day-to-day research at NASA's Ames Research Center in California, but she's not only exploring an expanded definition of life via extraterrestrial organisms. She's also leading the way on the hunt for synthetic life—life created in the lab, and, as she pointed out to us, untouched by evolution.

The end goal is to get more context around what life itself even is. For all of us trying to figure out our own lives, it's a heady thought. But when we dive deeper into the basic building blocks of life in the Universe, we may find out that it doesn't have to look like anything we know.