The human species has always looked to the stars and planets. From our discovery of the solar system to sending a man to the moon, we’ve always dreamt of and strived to venture into the cosmos. The only way we’ve been able to accomplish so much, is our ability to create incredible technology that allows our survival in the uninhabitable environment that is outer space.
Rockets, shuttles, suits, computers etc…We rely on our manipulation of matter into tools for our disposal. It’s what makes humans so great. Without our technology, the harsh environments of space and other planets would be completely impossible to inhabit, let alone visit. But does technology have limited potential? Does it need something to compliment it?
That’s what Lisa Nip (doctoral candidate at the MIT Media Lab) is suggesting in her recent TED Talk. Through the use of synthetic biology, Lisa strongly suggests that scientists will be able to genetically modify humans, plants and bacteria.
This will in turn allow space travel and the terraforming of planets to be less reliant on our ability to create technology, such as engineering a hermetically sealed environment to allow plant growth.
Humans have an easy life here on Earth, but it’s only because we’ve had hundreds of thousands of years to evolve and adapt to our planets environment. This in turn has made us perfectly suited for life here. In the microgravity of outer space or potential macrogravity of another planet, it’s a completely different story.
The longest amount of time that a human has spent in space is around fourteen months. Even this amount of time in microgravity leads to bone loss, muscle atrophy, cardiovascular problems and other adverse physiological and psychological effects. Not to mention the potential different environments of other planets we might be forced to attempt to inhabit. Mars for example has an average temperature of about -85 Fahrenheit (-65 Celsius), no rainfall, a soil similar to volcanic ash and no atmospheric protection against ionizing solar radiation.
“If we were to dump any of us on Mars right this minute — even given ample food, air and water and a suit — we are likely to experience very unpleasant health problems from the ionizing radiation,” she said.
Rather than attempt to combat all these environmental obstacles by engineering new technology, why don’t we just engineer ourselves? Instead of constructing suits of armor and creating lead barriers to protect our bodies, we can simply just modify our genetic code to be resistant to these problems. And Mother Earth has already invented an incredible array of bacteria/microbes that provide us with these environmentally resistant genes.
Lisa suggests that extremophile bacteria hold the key, using Deinococcus Radiodurans as an example. One of the world’s toughest bacterium, it can withstand one hundred times the ionizing radiation levels lethal to a human, with no apparent adverse effects.
Already able understand some of the pathways that Deinococcus Radiodurans sends, if scientists can harness it’s genetic potential and stitch it into the human genome our species will be able to thrive in high radiation environments such as Mars.
We can go even further and use this genetic modification on plants and creatures essential to the terraforming of a planet as well. Rather than having to engineer large pieces of land and create some sort of dome to contain large amounts of habitable atmospheric gas, we could just genetically modify (using the same GMO process I’m sure you’ve heard of) the plants we’re growing to be resistant to the adverse environment around it.
It could be possible, for instance, to harness the genes found in certain fish that create an antifreeze effect and transplant them into crops, making them cold resistant. This could allow for the plants to thrive on Mars -86 Fahrenheit surface without the need of excess technology.
Instead of relying solely on our inherent ability to construct tools to solve our problems, maybe we need to change ourselves to accompany it. Sending our evolution into super speed could make space travel and the colonization of Mars and other planets a much more feasible task.
“Evolution requires two things that we may not always have or be able to afford: They are death and time,” Nip said. “In our species’ struggle to find our place in the universe, we may not have the time necessary for the natural evolution of extra functions on new planets.”