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WHY THIS MATTERS IN BRIEF

Today we have the power to create new species of animals never previously thought possible and at some point it seems inevitable that humans will start seeding new life across the universe.

 

In the past six months’ scientists have created alien life forms unlike anything we’ve ever seen on Earth before, with six, not four, DNA nucleotides, and digitised and then successfully teleported life, in this case a virus from one room to another, however, looking at the technology, which consisted of little more than a computer and a 3D bioprinter, this could have just as easily been from the scientists’ lab to a colony on Pluto – if we ever wanted to go there that is.

 

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In the past couple of decades the rate at which organisations like NASA has been discovering new planets has accelerated dramatically, and as we all know when you find a new planet there are a host of voices asking when we’re going to not just explore them but terraform and inhabit them, and now some of these voices are producing proposals.

Voices like Elon Musk who recently announced his plans to build a colony on Mars, and Stephen Hawking who recently proposed building fleets of self-healing, interstellar nano-spacecraft that would cross the galaxies at a fifth light speed.

Now though there’s another voice joining them Dr. Claudius Gros, whose proposal “Project Genesis” aims to seed distant planets with life, and if you’ve ever seen the movie Prometheus then you’ll get the idea.

In 2016 Gros, a theoretical physicist from the Institute for Theoretical Physics at Goethe University Frankfurt, published a paper that described how robotic missions equipped with gene factories, or cryogenic pods, could be used to distribute microbial life to “transiently habitable exoplanets,” in other words planets capable of supporting life but that are unlikely to give rise to it of their own accord.

 

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Exoplanets come in all sizes and have all sorts of environments and compositions and the ultimate aim of the Genesis Project is to “offer terrestrial life alternative evolutionary pathways on those exoplanets that are potentially habitable but yet lifeless.”

The basic philosophy that most scientists seem to sign up to these days is that simple life is common in the universe and that complex life is rare, but as we’ve seen on Earth, if you had good conditions, simple life can develop very fast, but that said complex life could still struggle to get a firm enough foothold. For example, here on Earth the Cambrian Explosion only happened 500 million years ago, roughly 4 billion years after Earth was formed, so the Gros’ theory goes that if we give planets the opportunity to fast forward evolution we can give them the chance to have their own Cambrian Explosions much faster than would otherwise happen.

As for which planets Gros and his team would target first the prime candidates are habitable oxygen planets around M-Dwarfs like the recently discovered TRAPPIST-1 because it’s very likely that the oxygen rich primordial atmosphere of these planets are the same ones that would have prevented Abiogenesis, the formation of life, in the first place, plus it’s thought that our galaxy could potentially harbour billions of habitable but lifeless oxygen planets.

 

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But then comes the next big question – what sorts of organisms would we, or should we, send?

Well, here Gros thinks the first wave should consist of unicellular Autotrophs – the photosynthesising bacteria, like cyanobacteria, and eukaryotes, which are the two basic cell types that make up all complex life on Earth. Then, Heterotrophs, organisms that feed on other organisms, would then follow in the second wave because they can only exist after autotrophs exist and take root.

As for the method of delivery though, well, that depends on where you want to get to but there are plenty of options here too. We could send miniaturised gene factories, for example, sending in a gene bank, and then selecting the most optimal organism to send down to the planet’s surface once it’s been analysed, but if that wasn’t possible we could also send frozen germs, or even the biological teleporter I discussed earlier.

 

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Moving several steps further along though we could use synthetic biology to design synthetic lifeforms that are custom built to thrive in the sorts of environments that we think they’ll encounter, something that even NASA has considered, although in their case they’ve been considering designing genetically engineered astronauts that do everything from photosynthesise to create their own custom proteins.

Science fiction movies, like Prometheus, are rife with scientists trying to design new alien life forms and “play God,” and while this could be very dangerous on Earth in the deep recesses of space, on “inhospitable” planets, well, scientists could go crazy, so who knows, maybe in a few generations time our space faring descendants will come across a poison spitting, three headed, six legged camel leopard. And they’ll have Gros to thank for it.

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, Futurist and Founder of the 311 Institute is described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers.” Among other things Matthew keeps busy helping the world’s largest smartphone manufacturers ideate the next five generations of smartphones, and what comes beyond, the world’s largest chip makers envision the next twenty years of intelligent machines, and is helping Europe’s largest energy companies re-invent energy generation, transmission and retail.

Recognised in 2013, 2015 and 2016 as one of Europe’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an award winning author, entrepreneur and international speaker who has been featured on the BBC, Discovery and other outlets. Working hand in hand with accelerators, investors, governments, multi-nationals and regulators around the world Matthew helps them envision the future and helps them transform their industries, products and go to market strategies, and shows them how the combination of new, democratised, powerful emerging technologies are helping accelerate cultural, industrial and societal change.

Matthew’s clients include Accenture, Bain & Co, Bank of America, Blackrock, Booz Allen Hamilton, Boston Consulting Group, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deutsche Bank, Deloitte, Deutsche Bank, Du Pont, E&Y, Fidelity, Goldman Sachs, HPE, Huawei, JP Morgan Chase, KPMG, Lloyds Banking Group, McKinsey & Co, PWC, Qualcomm, Rolls Royce, SAP, Samsung, Schroeder’s, Sequoia Capital, Sopra Steria, UBS, the UK’s HM Treasury, the USAF and many others.

Comments
  • Mark Cofano#1

    14th December 2017

    Please know that I value you as a fellow futurist and find much of what you post to be well considered, however….

    This “power” that you are referring to is beyond irresponsible. It is to play creator when we don’t even know how to feed all the people on the planet, how to live without destroying the environment or how to co-exist without war.

    So let’s create another species. Let’s figure out how make something that we have no way to control. Let’s pretend it can’t escape the lab. Perhaps it should be eight feet tall or have gills. Perhaps it will make us sterile, find us tasty, yada?

    Have you given consideration to the thought that something that “seeds the universe” might be our enemy in the future? Evolution is slow, slow, slow!

    The ultimate enemy to humans is not AI aliens, an ELE, or plague. It’s arrogance. Humans are still children with matches.

    Don’t mistake me for a Luddite. I am “for” investigation, exploration, and innovation. I am against the technocracy where intellect is the prized above all else and is the final arbiter of what comes next. I am against the unbridled passion for profit and change without regard for the future of humans.

    Thank you and hope you will respond.

    Reply
    • John Douglas Snowden#2

      14th December 2017

      This is actually great Mark Cofano

      Panspermia is likely our responsibility as a self-aware species. You could use this to terraform otherwise uninhabitable planets from earth. Huge cost savings there if one organism didn’t work out, just print a new one instead of launching a new rocket.

      Great idea!

      Reply
      • Mark Cofano#3

        14th December 2017

        Panspermia is the condition of how life may be transmitted throughout the Universe. You’re referring to “directed Panspermia.” Michael Mautner seems to share your opinion.

        LinkedIn makes long (and complete) replies difficult because of limitations of characters. So I’ll be as brief as possible:

        (Species #1) Life = Virus or Parasite = Weapon (Species #2)

        Let’s have some fun to keep this light. Aliens on the planet Doinko 10,000 years our seniors in evolution and with way better A.I., decide that the universe it too lonely. They “program” life and create ships that sail the universe printing variations of life that can “Doinkaform” barren planets. Except their A.I. makes a mistake and one of their life forms gets mistakenly sent to earth. And it lands it your backyard. And it eats your cat. First.

        Do you believe that the species with the best seeds wins? Are you OK with the Doinka getting upset because our life package landed on their planet and ate their Doinkat? Don’t you think we should discover if life actually does exist “out there” first?

        Like I said John…”children with matches.”

        Please comment and connect with me if you’d like to discuss this further offline.

        Reply
        • John Douglas Snowden#4

          14th December 2017

          The idea I was speaking to would be to use these biofactories to convert atmospheres, in otherwise uninhabitable planets, breathable for colonization by humans.

          Reply
  • Justin Roberts#5

    14th December 2017

    I doubt it. NASA tries to prevent the contamination of space as it is, I can’t see much enthusiasm for doing it deliberately.

    Reply

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