WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF
Space is the harshest environment known to man and the idea of creating the world’s first genetically altered humans who can survive its extremes “naturally” without the need to take their artificial environments with them is gaining traction.
At last year’s International Astronautical Congress in Mexico Elon Musk convinced an audience packed full of die hard space engineers that he’d begin the process of colonising Mars by 2022.
His speech was long on orbits, flight plans, and fuel costs, but it was short on how any of those colonists would survive – in fact, and in all likelihood, the Mars journey would likely be a dead end for anyone who signed up for it. Literally.
Frozen and bathed in deadly radiation the Red Planet is basically a graveyard in waiting but recently a few scientists have started to explore whether we might be able to improve the pioneers chances of survival – if, that is, we engineered them to cope with the perils of space travel, and colonisation.
In short scientists are now openly discussing the creation, and feasibility, of creating genetically “engineered” astronauts, and support for the idea is growing.
For those of you who’ve been reading my blogs about artificial humans, designer babies, babies without biological parents and artificial wombs, let’s be clear here I’m not saying that NASA want to breed genetically modified astronauts in a vat somewhere, after all that would be daft… time to get your groove on conspiracy theorists.
Talk is one thing though but now more and more scientists are donning their white lab coats and getting busy trying to modify human cells in the lab. Can they be made radiation proof? Can they be reconfigured to produce their own vitamins and amino acids? Can we draw smiley cat faces on them? You get the idea.
One of the scientists involved in trying to space proof humans is Christopher Mason, a member of the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine. In 2011 he came up with what he called at the time a “500 year plan” to get humans off Earth, and in it, you’ve guessed it, genetic modification plays a big role.
“I think we have to consider it for people that we send to other planets,” he says, “we don’t know if it’s a slight nudge to existing gene expression, or a whole new chromosome, or finally a complete rewriting of the genetic code.”
Mason, who believes there’s a decade or two of work left just to find out what effect space travel has on your genes, and which ones might be okay to modify, is participating in NASA’s “Twins Study,” a program that’s monitoring the physiological changes to an individual astronaut who was sent to the International Space Station for a year while his identical twin brother stayed on Earth. So far the Twins Study is as close as NASA has gotten to discussing the subject of genetically modified (GM) astronauts and the idea has never been floated in any official agency document.
Despite this though Mason says his lab’s ready to take the initial step, and since space is full of rays and fast moving particles that can wreak havoc on DNA he’s working on radiation proofing human cells first.
As a consequence his students are taking cells and adding extra copies of p53, a gene known as the “Protector of the Genome” that’s involved in preventing the development of Cancer. Elephants, for example, have lots of extra copies of p53 and hardly ever get cancer, so Mason concludes that maybe astronauts should have them too, and he says he’s already submitted a proposal to NASA to send the modified cells to the space station.
“There is not a genetic engineering astronaut’s consortium or anything, but maybe we should start one,” he says, mulling that space travel might offer humanity with a very powerful argument to create genetically modified people, “you can’t send someone to another planet without genetically protecting them if you are able to, that would also be unethical.”
But genetic modification could quickly lead to “enhancement” and that’s another door that very few people are willing to even consider opening – for the moment at least… For example, experts remain dead set against using gene editing to make a child who is smarter or endowed with perfect eyesight, but NASA already selects people according to just such criteria, accepting only 14 of 18,300 applicants to its latest class of astronauts, and if you’ve seen the movie Gattaca, where only supermen with topped off genomes are allowed to travel to Titan, while the genetic losers, called “In-valids,” stare up in envy as the rockets lift off then you might have already seen a vision of the future.
To think about surviving in space a genetics term called “Fitness” comes in handy – in genetics, the fitness of an organism is how well it can thrive and reproduce in a given environment.
The fitness of a human in space or on Mars is extremely low, and without their spacesuit and the right amount of oxygen and nitrogen, and the right temperature they’d be dead – it’s the equivalent of a fish taking a tour of London while still in its bowl. Scientists here are basically arguing why not just engineer the fish to breathe air? And some of them have already prepared a catalogue of genes that might help space proof us.
A Boston company called Veritas Genetics is offering to sequence anyone’s genome for $999, and they’ll even give you a report on the fitness of your “Space genes.” Do you have the specific variant of EPAS1, common to Tibetans, that lets you get by with less oxygen? How about the natural mutation that results in huge, extra lean muscles, which might counter atrophy? Meanwhile, another DNA variant is associated with good problem solving skills and low anxiety, and that’s just the sort of temperament that made Matt Damon’s implausible survival heroics possible in The Martian.
You’d be unusual if you had any one of these mutations, and the chances are billions to one that you have all of them which is why to get them all into one astronaut, the perfect astronaut, we might want to add them, probably before birth using powerful gene engineering technologies such as CRISPR.
George Church, who founded Veritas, has even put together a list of “preferred rare protective genes” that are especially suited to an extra-terrestrial environment.
So, what other kind of adaptations could we install into our race of astronauts?
If you leave some large elephants on an island and come back 10,000 years later, what you’ll find is a bunch of small elephants because they’ll have adapted to the lack of surface area and shortage of food. The phenomenon is called “Island Dwarfism,” and under the Martian habitats, smaller might be better too. After all, there’s probably not that much space, and every pound of provisions NASA takes into Earth orbit costs $10,000, so that means the perfect astronaut probably isn’t just twice as strong as the average person but that they’re also half the size, and some scientists think we should take the modifications even further.
At one off the record meeting recently Harris Wang of Columbia University gave a talk titled “Synthesizing a Prototrophic Human” that discussed creating humans that could live by just drinking sugar water, a phenomenon known as Phototrophism.
Wang says it’s not certain if the concept could even work, but in his lab researchers are trying to get human kidney cells to synthesise the nine amino acids our bodies don’t normally make, starting with the simplest one, methionine, manufactured by adding a single gene. If that works, he’ll move on to tryptophan, phenylalanine, and vitamins D, C, and B, and all together he believes creating a prototrophic human cell would require around 250 new genes.
Creating astronauts able to make their own essential nutrients would obviously be immensely complicated, but at the same time immensely beneficial. But as complex as it is, it might be less challenging than the alternatives, such as terraforming an entire planet, and then creating a magnetic shield to protect the atmosphere from being blasted away by solar radiation, or bringing along an orbiting space station that’s complete with an atmosphere, vertical farms, and bioreactors that can grow meat from stem cells.
Wang also suggests it could be beneficial if future astronauts could also photosynthesise to make their own food in the same way plants do, but he admits that anyone able to do so would hardly be human, and anyway, to produce enough energy a person would need to be as flat as a leaf and about the size of a playground.
“I don’t want it said that I am making green people, and I am not suggesting we do this any time soon. But I am suggesting that if you want to do intergalactic travel, you need to solve the problem of being totally self-sufficient,” says Wang, “we are putting humans in very extreme conditions, and from that perspective all of these ideas seem like they should be discussed as a potential long term plan.”
The ability to alter the DNA of a human embryo, such as the one of the designer baby born in Mexico last year, has created a global debate over whether it would be right or wrong to genetically modify people, but if this was your decision what would you do? Send astronauts to Mars and hope they’ll somehow figure out how not to die, or genetically modify them not to just survive but thrive?
Answers on a teleported E-Mail please. And yes, teleported E-Mails are an actual thing – check out the link. Crazy Canadians.