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Space Café Israel by Meidad Pariente: Dr. Reut Sorek Abramovich – Biotech and health issues – who is up for the challenge?

Dr. Reut Sorek Abramovich; Credit: Nir Langer


By Meidad Pariente

In the sixth episode of Space Café Israel, Meidad Pariente is in conversation with Dr. Reut Sorek Abramovich

Can you share something personal that isn’t written in your LinkedIn profile?

So my special thing started when I was doing my PhD in Sydney, Australia, and I decided I needed to gain something that will help me mentally and psychologically. So I started doing belly dancing. And people don’t know this but I was pretty good at it. I had tremendous, tremendous fun with a beautiful group of dancers as well. And the beautiful thing about Sydney is that there’s a lot of immigrants from all around the world. So I had the chance to dance with and alongside people from Iran, from Turkey, from Lebanon, from Egypt, from Mexico and from other places as well. And it was it was like a new Middle East happening all over there. So it was great. 

What is astrobiology and what does an Astrobiologist do?

So astrobiology is a multidisciplinary field of science that has a lot of different aspects to it. And it’s actually fascinating. The word astrobiology was first coined by NASA in 1990. It’s fairly new and before that it was comprised from exobiology and extrabiology and xenobiology and all sorts of stuff, until NASA decided to put an end to the mixture of things and said, Okay, we’re going to look for life elsewhere by looking for and understanding life here on Earth. So the multidisciplinary aspect of it means that as astrobiologists we can either go towards what is the origin of life on planet Earth? and hence, where life can start elsewhere in the universe? And that really drills down into very basic, almost philosophical questions, such as, What is a life form? When was the first life form formed on planet Earth? And how did we evolve here on the planet? and what were the conditions for it? And other aspects include for instance extreme environments. So if I can find something that is happily living in Antarctica, then perhaps I can find something that is very happy to live in, for instance, on Europa, which is an icy moon of Jupiter. And if I find something in the Dead Sea, which likes to live in 375 grams of salt per liter, then perhaps I can find something that can handle that on Mars, which has a lot of salt in its regolith, in its soil. So that’s extreme environments. We look at the habitability where life can flourish, where they cannot and what are the limits. We’re looking at biotechnological applications for some of these extreme microorganisms, we look at their adaptation. I also like to say that we need to look at timescales in astrobiology. Because I look at the origin of life and talk about the revolution here and how it might happen someplace else, people need to realize how long, it really took for things to happen here on planet Earth, as we understand it here and why, perhaps detecting intelligent life forms is such a hard or almost impossible at the moment task for us humans. So it’s super interesting, I really love it. I work a lot with geologists and chemists, and sometimes I work with authors and artists, and people are thinking about future options and how these things happen. So you need to have like a really well-rounded approach to different scientific issues. And I love it. I love the community. It’s a great community to be with. And we really like to exchange many, many ideas.

If you’re really in a remote place, you’re probably going to just have to isolate yourself, forever, more or less. And you’re going to have to find a way to monitor your situation. COVID-19 made it very clear to me, at least, that you need quite a lot of equipment in order to understand how susceptible you are to infect other people?

For the past two years, you studied COVID-19 Viral evolution at a Shamir Medical Center at Assaf Harofeh hospital. Do you think there are lessons learned from how humanity dealt with the pandemic that we can implement for future exoplanet colonies?

Yes, absolutely. So the first thing is from an operational point. There are two main items in this topic. One is, what do you do when you’re having a medical problem of a pandemic, and someone is really, really, really remote. So for instance, Canada has just announced a year ago, that they’re going to promote “deep space healthcare”. And the reason is because they have so many untreated areas, in the Canadian territories, it’s so huge, that they really think that things like telemedicine, like artificial intelligence, things that are relevant to a deep space mission or a space mission, are actually pretty useful here on planet Earth. So if you’re talking about COVID-19, than the way all of a sudden, people didn’t have to come to the hospital in order to get certain treatments. They had their physician on call, or they had even a bot trying to help them to realize what the situation is. So everything that has to do with getting remote healthcare, and remote medical assistance is relevant, basically, for space missions. And that’s one of the things that at least in Israel was implemented. Distributed way of doing community medicine and health medicine and hospital, and treating people, it’s been an amazing experience. People talked all the time about digital health, and lowering the numbers of patients being hospitalized and making sure that you can get whatever you need at home. But things were not really progressing in the manner I would expect for. Then all of a sudden, you had the pandemic, and people with various conditions from autoimmune deficiency or handicapped could not leave their house, and on top of that, you had all these restrictions. So it really caused a leap to all those technologies to be implemented in Israel. And I think Canada is looking forward to do something similar in their territories. I think it’s an excellent opportunity, an amazing dual use case. And the other thing is, what are you going to do when you have a pandemic, in a remote base? If you’re really in a remote place, you’re probably going to just have to isolate yourself, forever, more or less. And you’re going to have to find a way to monitor your situation. COVID-19 made it very clear to me, at least, that you need quite a lot of equipment in order to understand how susceptible you are to infect other people? People had this antigen, and they had the PCR and then there was this whole issue of what cycle of the PCR means that you’re still infective. And every pandemic that we had on planet Earth, whether it was AIDS, SARS, MERS, or COVID-19, and whatever comes in the near future, we’re going to have that issue of understanding, are you infected? and how long until you’re not infected? So the first thing that you need to do is to have a really good monitoring system. And you need to really, really isolate yourself. One of the things I’m really worried about space conditions, whether it’s the moon, Mars and so on, is that we’re not there to understand how populations of microorganisms are going to react to those conditions (moon and mars environmental conditions – m.p). And the issue is not the gravity, It is the exposure to radiation. And from a human perspective how your immune system is working. When you’re constantly under stressful conditions, you’re away from your family, you’re under perhaps stress duress, perhaps you doing a lot of repetitive and boring, day-to-day facility issues and tasks, it takes your immune system down and gets you susceptible to germs. And then the question is, are germs even more pathogenic in space because of radiation? So medical assistant in space is a must. And it’s an interesting issue, I think..

Between your educational activities, D-Mars analogue astronaut missions, and lately, Midburn (the Israeli Burning man) 2022 Camp Martian leader, what do you value most what gets your juices flowing?

I really like to see people happy and engaged, really engaged, in space-related topics. But for me, everything is connected to space. So as long as people are happy, and engaged, I’m very, very happy. When we are able as a species, to make a positive impact on our knowledge base, or on this planet, then I’m, I’m super happy and I’m moved. So for instance, a recent huge advancement to our knowledge base is everything that’s happening with James Webb (space telescope – m.p), which is going to be a huge thing in now and for the next decade or so. We’re going to know stuff that we’ve never done before. And it’s absolutely unbelievable. And I’m also looking forward to people coming together, and helping the planet that we live in. Maybe it’s because I’m a scientist. For me, it’s easier to understand via scientific projects and collaborations. So for instance, when you have new type of satellites that are able to combine unbelievable data sources in higher resolution, and all of a sudden you understand what’s happening with the oceans better and what’s going with rivulets and rivers and where people are going to get their freshwater and where not. That really really moves me. And I’m very happy to work with passionate individuals. The space ecosystem is all about passion.

Shoutout time. Can you name an Israeli new space company that you think will have an impact in the future?

My favourite at the moment, and it changes Israel space startup is Helios. I really like their advancement with using minerals from the moon to get oxygen. I think their system works. I think they’re going to have a preliminary POC on the moon soon with ispace coming up, if I’m not mistaken. I’ve been watching them for several years, and I’m very happy with the direction they’re going. I have to say that they’re part of a very fierce global ecosystem to get mining (on the moon – m.p) going on. So it’s actually super important that we have a leg and hand in it. I’m very happy for them. Looking forward, for the POC.

What do you think the Israeli space industry will look like in 2050?

Let’s be optimistic. So the optimistic version is, Israel is innovative not only in satellite, but also innovative in the astronautics department, we are able to train and supply astronauts to the industry, which are capable to handle a lot of different situations and also are very highly professional, whether it’s for science, whether it’s for communication, and other things as well. Israel has a presence on the moon as well. About Mars, 30 years is enough to assess whether we need a Martian conglomerate in association or not. And whether we should make the goal going there. Mars is a big, big stretch, I think that Americans are definitely going to get there before everybody else. And I just hope that in the next 30 years, we actually get to the moon, as a country and as a business partner. And also as a diplomatic partner, to some countries in the region. I would like to see, of course, more women in the space ecosystem here in Israel. So in 2050, 50% of the workforce in the space ecosystem (at least 50%) will be women. And of course, that will be reflected also in the managerial levels. And yeah, that’s very optimistic, I think.

Dr. Reut Sorek Abramovich is an astrobiologist at the Dead Sea and Arava Science Centre, under the auspices of the Ben Gurion University of the Negev. Her research topics include the beginning of life on Earth, extremophiles evolution and adaptation, Covid-19 viral evolution, using bacteria and algae for life support systems in space, and forward and backward contamination in human exploration missions. She is also the space sciences department Co-chair for the prestigious International Space University, 2023 Space Studies Program in Brazil. She also does quite a bit of science, education, and outreach activities, in Israel and abroad. 

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