Ian Ramsey Centre


Astrobiology: searching for life beyond the Earth

Thu 1 Mar, 5:00pm – 6:15pm

Astrobiology: searching for life beyond the Earth

Prof. Rafael Vicuña
Facultad de Ciencias Biológicas. Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

Gibson Building, Lecture Room, Faculty of Theology and Religion, Oxford


The aim of astrobiology is to study the origin, evolution and whereabouts of life in the universe. At present, we know of only one type of life: the one that thrives on Earth. However, there are several types of microorganisms whose normal habitats are quite similar to those found in other rocky bodies in our solar system, such as planet Mars and the moons Europa (Jupiter), Enceladus and Titan (Saturn). This allows the presumption that these bodies may harbour life and furthermore, that life may be widespread in the universe. Various rovers exploring Mars have looked for different types of biosignatures, although to date the results have not been conclusive. The same applies to data collected by satellites sent to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Given the current impossibility of bringing samples from these places, one approach followed by scientists has been to investigate microorganisms proliferating in the aforementioned habitats on Earth (extremophiles).

On the other hand, technological advances in the field of astronomy have allowed the discovery of numerous planets in stars of our neighborhood in the Milky Way. Several of these planets are rocky and are orbiting in the habitability zone of their respective stars, so named because, if present, the water would be in the liquid state. Based on this criterion, some tens of potentially habitable exoplanets have already been identified. The following step will be to remotely analyze possible signs of disequilibrium in the atmospheres of the exoplanets, which hypothetically could respond to the presence of life in them. Thus, at least with the available technology, inferences of life in the exoplanets will be indirect.

RAFAEL VICUÑA is a member of the Chilean Academy of Sciences, the Latin American Academy of Sciences, the World Academy of Sciences (TWAS), the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Council for Culture. He is the author of more than one hundred publications in the fields of enzymology and gene expression in bacteria and fungi, as well as of about fifty publications dealing with science and society and science and religion. He obtained his PhD in Molecular Biology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York in 1978. He then joined the Faculty of Biological Sciences at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, where he has been full professor since 1994. In 1996 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. During 1997-1999, he served as President of the Chilean Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. He is also former Dean of Research and Vice President for Academic Affairs at his University.


This event is organised by the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion in collaboration with the Humane Philosophy Project and the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Warsaw.