Breakthrough Discuss 2019


April 11-12, 2019 at UC Berkeley


Breakthrough Discuss is an annual academic conference focused on life in the Universe and novel ideas for space exploration.

Conference Theme

“Migration of Life in the Universe”

[A description of the three Sessions follows the schedule of presenters and panelists.]

Participate Live

Email your Breakthrough Discuss question for panelists to be asked live:

The YouTube Live chat feature will also be monitored by a facilitator who will feed virtual participant questions into the panel discussion sessions.

Watch Live

April 11: Day 1 Schedule: Presenters/Panelists

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Pacific Time USA

Welcome: Hosts Charles Alcock, Penny Boston, Jamie Drew, Paul Kalas, S. Pete Worden
Keynote: Natalie Batalha, “From Lava Worlds to Living Worlds”
Session One: The Migration of Life in the Universe: Chairs Penny Boston, Lindy Elkins-Tanton
Sara Walker, “Searching for the ‘Laws of Life’ - A Guidebook for Reprogramming Planets”
Jade Checlair , “Testing the Habitable Zone Concept“
Kat Volk, “Solar System Shake-up: How Planet Migration Rearranged Our System”
Lindy Elkins-Tanton, “Life on Small Bodies”
Ben Weiss, “Did Martian Meteorites Seed Life on Earth?”
Steinn Sigurðsson, “Lithopanspermia: Sic Itur ad Astra”
Lunch Break
Panel One: The Migration of Life in the Universe: Chair Penny Boston with Bill Bottke, David Catling, Ben Clark, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Karen Meech, Jay Melosh
(Open Discussion)
Session Two: Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes: Chairs Drew Endy, Gary Ruvkun
Gary Ruvkun, “What is True for E. coli on Earth Will Be True for Life on Proxima Centauri b”
Harry Noller, “It Could Happen Here: Evolution of Protein Synthesis (and Life) From an RNA World”
Karen Davies, “Generating Cellular Energy: the Marvels and Diversity of the Nanoturbine, ATP Synthase”
Steven Benner, “Our First Contact with Alien Life Will Come in a Chemistry Laboratory”
David Haussler, “Genomics and the Evolution of Intelligence”
Drew Endy, “Should We Search for Messages from Extraterrestrial Intelligences in Terrestrial Genomes?”
Concluding Remarks

April 12: Day 2 Schedule: Presenters/Panelists

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Watch Live on YouTube:

Pacific Time USA

Welcome: S. Pete Worden
Keynote: Marileen Dogterom, “Bringing Synthetic Cells to Space?”
Panel Two: Search for Extra-Terrestrial Genomes: Chairs Drew Endy and Gary Ruvkun with Adam Arkin, Penny Boston, Jamie Cate, Michael Finney, Donald Goldsmith, Kevin Peter Hand
(Open Discussion)
Lunch Break
Session Three: Emigration of Life from Earth: Chairs Kate Adamala, Sara Walker
Mario Damasso & Fabio Del Sordo, “Things Behind the Sun: Proxima Strikes Again”
Sarah Maurer, “First Aggregation, Then Life”
Heath Mills, “No Trash! Biomanufacturing for In-Flight Resource Recapturing & Repurposing”
Aaron Engelhart, “Getting to Mars – and Surviving Upon Arrival”
Robert Zubrin, “Interstellar Communication Using Microbes: Implications for SETI“
Kate Adamala, “Life, but not alive”
Panel Three: Emigration of Life from Earth: Chairs Kate Adamala and Sara Walker with Tanya Harrison, RP Oates, Megan Palmer, Andrew Pohorille, Lynn Rothschild
(Open Discussion)
Concluding Remarks


Humanity may well be on the verge of discovering life elsewhere in the Universe. We are certainly close to being able to spread life into the solar system. If life is found elsewhere, one of the most urgent questions will be its origin. We will want to know if we share a common origin: was this life transferred to or from Earth, or did life arise independently on each world? The possibility that life can or might be transported among planets, star systems, and galaxies frames the major questions being explored at Breakthrough Discuss 2019.

Conference Booklet

Download here.

Session One

Migration of Life in the Universe

Chairs: Penelope Boston (NASA), Lindy Elkins-Tanton (ASU)

A decade of exoplanet discoveries has revealed that, statistically, about 25% of stars host at least one temperate rocky planet of around one-to-four Earth radii – just right for life as we know it. Perhaps life could evolve independently from simple chemistry on each of these planets. But ample evidence exists for comet or meteor strikes on planetary surfaces transferring material between the planets in the Solar System. This raises the possibility of life as a communicable microbial infection between planets. And the exchange of life between planets could even be galactic in scope: the surprising discovery of abundant Neptune-sized exoplanets at small orbital radii, where they are unlikely to have formed, suggests that large planet migration is common – and that this would result in the frequent ejection of other planets from these systems. Such interstellar rogue planets are an ideal vehicle for the transfer of life across the galaxy. The interstellar object ‘Oumuamua, may be an example of such an ejection. Is there sufficient movement among planetary and interstellar bodies for life to migrate between them? Can life survive interplanetary, or even interstellar transit?

Session Two

Search for Extraterrestrial Genomes

Chairs: Drew Endy (Stanford), Gary Ruvkun (Mass General, Harvard)

Astrobiology dogma assumes that life evolved from a primordial soup of chemicals on the early Earth via an RNA world to the current DNA world. But an alternative view is that these steps occurred on another planetary body more than 4 billion years ago, and that highly-evolved DNA-based life seeded the Earth as soon as it was habitable.

If complex microbial life has been transferred between planets and planetary systems, the single-molecule sensitivity tools of modern genomics can be used to detect life. SETI projects can also look for DNA sequences in aperiodic transmissions. Migration of DNA-based life between star systems could be a simple natural phenomenon, or it could have been directed, just as terraforming by microbial inoculation may be the next step in the colonization of Mars. And if life on Earth was intentionally seeded, are there messages embedded in genomes for the evolved molecular geneticists and astrophysicists, 4 billion years later, to decode?

Session Three

Emigration of Earth Life

Chairs: Kate Adamala (UMN), Sara Walker (ASU)

Even with contemporary chemical rockets, humankind has the ability to send objects throughout the galaxy – if we take a long enough view. Travelling at just 30 km/ sec, one could journey halfway across the galaxy – 50,000 light years – in 500 million years. Advances in propulsion technology, such as photon-driven lightsails, could reduce that number drastically; and the natural mixing of stars in the galactic disk would allow an even faster transfer. Thus, with breakthroughs in bioengineering and nanotechnology, it is conceivable that human civilization will possess the technology to populate planets around the nearest stars within the next century with some form of life. How would we begin transporting engineered biological or bio- mechanical systems off Earth? Can we communicate across interstellar distances using electromagnetic or biological methods? And – perhaps most importantly – should we?


Breakthrough Discuss 2019 is co-hosted by:

  • University of California, Berkeley, Department of Astronomy
  • Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
  • NASA Astrobiology Institute & NASA Ames Research Center
  • Breakthrough Initiatives (sponsor)

Past Discuss Conferences

Content and videos from previous years are available here:

The Breakthrough Initiatives

The Breakthrough Initiatives were founded in 2015 to explore the Universe, seek scientific evidence of life beyond Earth, and encourage public debate from a planetary perspective.