2019 Breakthrough Discuss Conference

(Page will be updated regularly)


April 11-12, 2019 (Thursday, Friday – 08:00-17:00)


Field Club, California Memorial Stadium, University of California, Berkeley
Address: 2227 Piedmont Ave Berkeley, CA 94720


Detailed schedule (updated regularly): docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1g88QCJ2NojwhBUCOhtY_jv70b-hnoHm6XaWnSQO496A/edit.

Conference Theme

‘Migration of Life in the Universe’

Abstract (Draft)

Humanity is on the verge of finding life elsewhere in the Universe and is approaching the capacity to send life purposefully. If life is found elsewhere there will likely be controversy about its origin. For example, for any life on another planet or moon, 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 – often known as panspermia – frames the major questions being explored at Breakthrough Discuss 2019.

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, ~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. Life could evolve independently from simple chemistry on each of these planets. 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. But the exchange of life between planets could be galactic in scope: the surprising discovery of abundant Neptune-sized exoplanets at small orbital radii where they are unlikely to have formed suggest that large planet migration is common with a concomitant ejection of other planets from stellar 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: Gary Ruvkun (Mass General, Harvard), Drew Endy (Stanford)

Astrobiology Dogma assumes a primordial soup of chemicals on early Earth that evolved via an RNA world to the current DNA world. 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. The fact that soon after the cooling of the Earth many protein sequences were already evolved to their modern state in the universal ancestor to the Tree of Life lends support to the microbial transfer model. But how long does evolution of the RNA world from simple chemicals and the invention of the ribosome and replacement by DNA take? 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. And SETI projects can look for DNA sequences in aperiodic transmissions. Origin of life research would need to consider the possible chemistries on all habitable planets. 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 is the next step in the colonization of Mars. 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 – 50k 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 bio or bio-mechanical systems off Earth? Can we communicate across interstellar distances using electromagnetic or biological methods? And perhaps most importantly, should we?

Yuri’s Night

An evening ‘Yuri’s Night’ event (Friday, April 12 – 19:30-00:00) will be hosted by S. Pete Worden, Executive Director of the Breakthrough Initiatives. Location and details will be given closer to event.


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)


  • Charles Alcock, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics
  • Penelope Boston, NASA Astrobiology Institute – NASA Ames Research Center
  • Jamie Drew, Breakthrough Initiatives
  • Paul Kalas, University of California, Berkeley
  • S. Pete Worden, Breakthrough Initiatives


The conference will be live streamed. Virtual participation via a chat feature will be monitored by a facilitator who will feed virtual participant questions into the panel discussion sessions.



Please consider these nearby hotels directly:


Please see conference schedule for departure times: TBD

Dedicated conference shuttle busses run to/from the Claremont and the Breakthrough Discuss conference venue. There will be shuttle buses from the Claremont hotel and the Yuri’s Night venue.


Designated conference parking at: TBD


Select ‘TBD’ wireless network. Open browser and load any URL; you will be redirected to an access page.

Invitation Only

Attendance at this conference is by invitation only.

Past Content

Content and videos from previous years are available here: breakthroughinitiatives.org/initiative/5.

Code Of Conduct

The Breakthrough Discuss conference is dedicated to fostering a safe environment where ideas flow freely, which means ensuring a harassment-free conference experience for all in attendance. No harassment of any kind towards any conference participants (including venue staff, etc.) will be tolerated during conference programming, breaks, or at any other conference-related event(s). Harassing behaviors include, but are not limited to, offensive verbal comments related to gender, sexual orientation, race, age, religion, disability, physical appearance, national origin, etc., as well as deliberate intimidation; harassing photography, recording, or postings; sustained disruption of talks or other events; inappropriate physical contact; and unwelcome sexual attention. If a participant engages in any harassing behavior, event organizers retain the right to take any actions to maintain a welcoming, safe environment for all participants. These actions include, but are not limited to, warning the alleged offender or expulsion from the conference and any associated event. If anyone experiences or witnesses any form of harassment at any point during any of the conference events, please contact: discuss@breakthrough-initiatives.org.


Logistics Lead – Christian: discuss@breakthrough-initiatives.org.

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.

Breakthrough Discuss

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