Meet the Team: Armando Azua-Bustos

This month we feature Armando Azua-Bustos, the “astrobiologist from the desert” who recently joined our team at BMSIS.

BMSIS: Please tell us a little about yourself.

Armando: I truly began my career in science about 10 years ago. As I graduated as an Agronomist –Enologist from the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, I worked in the wine industry for some time. However, after a year or two I realized that although I could have a good living by making wines, this avenue did not offered me any intellectual challenges; the wine I was making then was going to be more or less the same I would be making in five, ten or twenty years later. So, I came back to study. I first got a Master Degree in biochemistry from the Universidad de Chile. My thesis here focused on the understanding on how plant cells biosynthesize their cell walls, in particular, if the enzymes that participate on this process were physically coupled for this task. After graduating, I then worked in various projects related to plant biotechnology for a few years. About this period of time, I got in contact with Chris McKay, of NASA Ames, who introduced me to the fascinating field of astrobiology. I have been working with him since. After all of these biotech project finished, I decided to study again, this time in a PhD program focused in molecular genetics and microbiology at the Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile, which I am about to complete, as my thesis writing is being reviewed now. For my thesis work I choose what has become my research line, the understanding of the importance of water for life using microorganisms of the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest and oldest on Earth. In addition, the Atacama is a well established analog model of Mars, so most of my findings have a direct impact on the search and understanding of potential Mars life forms. I have the unique advantage of having been born in Pedro de Valdivia, a town located in the hyperarid areas of the Atacama and named after the Spanish conqueror. About a year later my family moved to another city in the Atacama, Chuquicamata, closer to the Andes, but still a very dry place; I recall that as a child I could read at night just by using the static electricity generated by my hand being rubbed again my bed linen.

So, this has given me the advantage of knowing the Atacama very well, as instead of watching TV during weekends, my father would take us to everything from star gazing to fossil hunting and Inca road trekking. This also caused my first ponderings on how different lifeforms; plants, animals, could make a living in such a dry place.

Thus, I put all these experience to good use, since my admittance in late 2009 in the PhD program I am now, I have published more than 10 papers on different aspects of Atacama microbial life, everything from microbial ecology to evolution. One last research area of interest for me that I have developed in the Atacama is the detection of “life as we do not know it”, a question I began to undertake in my latest publication.

BMSIS: What motivated you to join the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science?

Armando: After reading the activities, interests and mission statement of the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, I decided to apply as the questions being pursued are in complete agreement with my personal interests.

Questions like, how did life on Earth originate?, what environmental analogues on Earth can help us understand the environments of other planets? and has life ever developed on another planet in the Solar System? are an integral part of the course I am in charge at the Universidad de los Andes in Santiago, and also are an integral part of my research.

As (amazingly) I am the only “out of the closet” astrobiologist in Chile, I cannot discuss my findings and ideas with just anyone around. Thus, the BMSIS will provide me with the opportunity to talk about my recent research and learn about the work of others.

Besides, I knew most of the members of BMSIS from previous conferences and courses, and what is most important to me (besides their capabilities and intelligence), is that the people I knew I considered them to be good persons. So, could I ask for anything more?