Betul Kacar (pron. BE-tuel KUH-jarr) is an astrobiologist who is interested in understanding life’s origins, evolution and possible existence elsewhere in the Universe. Only one history of life has been recorded on our planet, but can we reconstruct the contributing metabolic factors of this biological past? Is life a result of a fluke accident? What is the likelihood of life occurring elsewhere in the Universe? To answer these questions, she combines computational and experimental tools and travels backwards in evolutionary time in the laboratory. She follows the evolutionary history of our DNA to unravel how the harsh conditions of our ancient planet shaped life to be the way it is today, and explores the varying roles of chance and necessity in life’s evolution.
Betul Kacar obtained her PhD from Emory University working jointly in the Department of Chemistry and the Emory School of Medicine. She was awarded a NASA Astrobiology Postdoctoral Fellowship in 2012 to bring abstractly reconstructed ancestral DNA sequences into the lab for physical, chemical and biological characterization by expressing inferred DNA sequences in modern organisms. In 2014, she moved her laboratory activities to the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, where she has focused on reconstructing key enzymatic intermediates between biological activity and global geochemical reservoirs throughout the Earth’s deep history.
Betul Kacar was recently awarded grants from the Templeton Foundation, the National Science Foundation and the NASA Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology Programs to continue this work deeper into the past and to resurrect greater portions of the universally shared ancestral genome. The overall goal of her work is to assess the possible environmental impacts of ancient enzymes on global-scale signatures that record biological activity.
Betul Kacar’s work has been recognized by various media outlets, such as NOVA Science, BBC Focus, New Scientist, WGBH, MIT Technology Review, SETI Institute, Astrobiology Magazine, Wired, Popular Science, PBS, iO9, CNN Turk, Quanta Magazine. She cares deeply about science education, outreach and communication, in 2012 she co-founded SAGANet,: The Online STEM Mentorship and Education Network, she serves on the Board of Advisory Committee of the MIT BioBuilder Foundation and was named “Way Cool Scientist” by the Science Club for Girls, USA in 2016.
- Watch a PBS documentary featuring her work: Origins of Life
- Watch a recent interview with the WGBH Boston: Reconstructing Evolution
- Listen to her interview with the SETI Institute Podcast: Cells, Planets, Astrobiology
- NASA Early Career Spotlight Series: Dr. Betul Kacar (University of Arizona)