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Institute of Advanced Study

Professor Stefan Helmreich's Public Lecture

Date: 9 February 2010

Time: 5.30pm

Venue: Van Mildert College

Title: Alien Ocean: Life at Sea

A new generation of marine biologists, employing the science of DNA sequencing, is coming to see the ocean as animated by its smallest inhabitants: marine microbes. Thriving in extreme conditions - from deep-sea volcanoes to methane-rich coastal areas - such microbes are becoming key figures in scientific and public debates about the origin of life, climate change, bioprospecting and biotechnology, and even the possibility of life on other planets. Such microbes are fresh, scientifically imagined tokens for the life the sea symbolizes and substantiates. But research into marine microbes also undoes the dearest categories of contemporary biology: heat-loving microbes at sea-floor vents breach boundaries between inorganic and organic, and lateral gene transfer among oceangoing microbes unravels steady conceptualizations of species and unmoors the very root of the "tree of life." Drawing on anthropological work with marine microbiologists, I name this new double-visioned sea the alien ocean - a zone in which worldly nature oscillates between familiar and strange, in which the very category of "life" is at sea.