If humanity is ever going to settle down on Mars, we may need to become a little less human.
Crewed missions to Mars, which NASA wants to start flying in the 2030s, will be tough on astronauts, exposing them to high radiation loads, bone-wasting microgravity and other hazards for several years at a time. But these pioneers should still be able to make it back to Earth in relatively good nick, agency officials have said.
It might be a different story for those who choose not to come home, however. If we want to stay safe and healthy while living permanently on Mars, or any other world beyond our home planet, we may need to make some tweaks to our species' basic blueprint, experts say.
Related: Space radiation threat to astronauts explained (infographic)
Genetic engineering and other advanced technologies "may need to come into play if people want to live and work and thrive, and establish their family, and stay on Mars," Kennda Lynch, an astrobiologist and geomicrobiologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, said on May 12 during a webinar hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences called "Alienating Mars: Challenges of Space Colonization."
"That's when these kinds of technologies might be critical or necessary," she said.
Genetic enhancement may not be restricted to the pages of sci-fi novels for much longer. For example, scientists have already inserted genes from tardigrades tiny, adorable and famously tough animals that can survive the vacuum of space into human cells in the laboratory. The engineered cells exhibited a greater resistance to radiation than their normal counterparts, said fellow webinar participant Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine, the medical school of Cornell University in New York City.
NASA and other space agencies already take measures to protect their astronauts physically, via spacecraft shielding, and pharmacologically via a variety of medicines. So, it's not a huge conceptual leap to consider protecting them genetically as well, provided that these measures are proven to be safe, Mason said.
"And are we maybe ethically bound to do so?" he said during the webinar. "I think if it's a long enough mission, you might have to do something, assuming it's safe, which we can't say yet."
Tardigrades and "extremophile" microbes, such as the radiation-resistant bacterium Deinococcus radiodurans, "are a great, basically natural reservoir of amazing traits and talents in biology," added Mason, who has been studying the effects of long-term spaceflight on NASA astronaut Scott Kelly. (Kelly spent nearly a year aboard the International Space Station in 2015 and 2016.) "Maybe we use some of them."
Harnessing these traits might also someday allow astronauts to journey farther than Mars, out to some even more exotic and dangerous cosmic locales. For instance, a crewed journey to the Jupiter moon Europa, which harbors a huge ocean beneath its icy shell, is out of the question at the moment. In addition to being very cold, Europa lies in the heart of Jupiter's powerful radiation belts.
"If we ever get there, those are the cases where the human body would be almost completely fried by the amount of radiation," Mason said. "There, it would be certain death unless you did something, including every kind of shielding you could possibly provide."
Genetic engineering at least lets us consider the possibility of sending astronauts to Europa, which is widely regarded as one of the solar system's best bets to harbor alien life. (The Jovian satellite is a high priority for NASA's robotic program of planetary exploration. In the mid-2020s, the agency will launch a mission called Europa Clipper, which will assess the moon's habitability during dozens of flybys. And Congress has ordered NASA to develop a robotic Europa lander as well, though this remains a concept mission at the moment.)
Related: The 6 most likely places to find alien life
Genetic engineering almost certainly won't be restricted to pioneering astronauts and colonists. Recent advances in synthetic biology herald a future in which "designer microbes" help colonists establish a foothold on the Red Planet, Lynch said.
"These are some of the things that we can actually do to help us make things we need, help us make materials to build our habitats," she said. "And these are a lot of things that scientists are researching right now to create these kinds of things for our trip to Mars."
Some researchers and exploration advocates have even suggested using designer microbes to terraform Mars, turning it into a world much more comfortable for humans. This possibility obviously raises big ethical questions, especially considering that Mars may have hosted life in the ancient past and might still host it today, in subsurface lakes or aquifers. (Permanently changing our own genomes for radiation protection or any other reason may also strike some folks as ethically dubious, of course.)
Most astrobiologists argue against terraforming Mars, stressing that we don't want to snuff out or fundamentally alter a native ecosystem that may have arisen on the Red Planet. That would be both unethical and unscientific, Lynch said.
After all, she said, one of the main reasons we're exploring Mars is to determine if Earth is the only world to host life.
"And how can we do that if we go and change the planet before we go and find out if life actually was living there?" Lynch said.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.
Read the rest here:
- For cancer treatment and more, genetic-based precision medicine holds a lot of promise - Connecticut Magazine - May 31st, 2020
- Drug factories: GMOs and gene editing are poised to transform medicine. Here's how. - Genetic Literacy Project - May 31st, 2020
- How to know your risk factors for hypertension and whether high blood pressure is genetic - Insider - INSIDER - May 31st, 2020
- Venture capital found its footing in biotech. Then came the virus. - BioPharma Dive - May 31st, 2020
- Israeli Lab: Drugs For Gaucher Disease May Work Against Coronavirus, Other Viral Infections | Health News - NoCamels - Israeli Innovation News - May 31st, 2020
- Rapid Growth on Genetic Testing Market with COVID-19 Impact Analysis, Top Key Companies like Abbott Laboratories Bio-Rad Laboratories Inc.,... - May 31st, 2020
- insideHPC Special Report: HPC and AI for the Era of Genomics - insideHPC - May 31st, 2020
- More insight into the cytokine storm caused by Covid-19 could lead to a treatment - Health24 - May 31st, 2020
- UCalgary researchers launch 360-degree study of children and COVID-19 - UCalgary News - May 31st, 2020
- 4000 Years of contact, conflict and cultural change had little genetic impact in Near East - University of Birmingham - May 31st, 2020
- Precision Medicine Market Overview By Growing Demands, Trends And Business Opportunities 2020 To 2027 - Cole of Duty - May 31st, 2020
- NOT REAL NEWS: A look at what didn't happen this week - wausaupilotandreview.com - May 31st, 2020
- Precision Medicine Informs Cost-Effective Heart Disease Treatments - HealthITAnalytics.com - May 19th, 2020
- Complement genes add to sex-based vulnerability in lupus and schizophrenia - Newswise - May 19th, 2020
- 23andMe Is Trying to Crack the Genetic Code Behind the Coronavirus - Motley Fool - May 19th, 2020
- Global Molecular Diagnostics Industry 2019-2029: Genetic Disorders, Cardiovascular Disorders, Infections and Cancer - Yahoo Finance UK - May 19th, 2020
- Prominent Cancer Researcher to Join DRI and Renown Health - GlobeNewswire - May 19th, 2020
- Research Roundup: HIV vaccination, diabetes two-in-one injection, hybrid fish genetics - The Stanford Daily - May 19th, 2020
- Singapore researches discover specific gene linked to Asian Lung Cancer - BSA bureau - May 19th, 2020
- Grant will help scientists break new ground in gene editing - Newswise - May 19th, 2020
- Genomic Medicine Market 2020 | Know the Latest COVID19 Impact Analysis And Strategies of Key Players: Ingersoll Rand, Johnson Controls, Daikin, United... - May 19th, 2020
- Dyne Therapeutics Accelerates Programs in Facioscapulohumeral Muscular Dystrophy (FSHD) with Exclusive Licensing of Technologies to Target Genetic... - May 19th, 2020
- Coronavirus immunity passports could create a world of 'us and them'. But here's why they make sense - Genetic Literacy Project - May 19th, 2020
- New Stem Cell-Based Topical Solution Helps Bald People Regrow Hair - SciTechDaily - May 19th, 2020
- Scientists race to find a cure or vaccine for the coronavirus. Here are the top drugs in development - CNBC - May 19th, 2020
- WHITEHALL ANALYTICA THE AI SUPERSTATE: Part 2 Is COVID-19 Fast-Tracking a Eugenics-Inspired Genomics Programme in the NHS? - Byline Times - May 19th, 2020
- CRISPR And CRISPR-Associated (Cas) Genes Market Size, Share, Trends and Forecast 2026 by Major Players and Business Opportunities Caribou... - May 19th, 2020
- Researchers: Disease affecting kids could be in the genes - Newsday - May 19th, 2020
- From Competition To Sharing: How Her Childrens Rare Disease Led Sharon Terry To Revolutionize Medical Research - Forbes - May 9th, 2020
- Infection rates may have links to cancer - Medical News Today - May 9th, 2020
- Twin peeks: Stanford inherits twin registry, expanding research options - Stanford Medical Center Report - May 9th, 2020
- Management of Fertility and Hormonal Health in Women at Risk for Hereditary Gynecologic Cancers - Endocrinology Advisor - May 9th, 2020
- Individualized mosaics of microbial strains transfer from the maternal to the infant gut - Newswise - May 9th, 2020
- The Falsehoods of the 'Plandemic' Video - FactCheck.org - May 9th, 2020
- Its in your genes Whether Covid lands you in hospital or not depends on your body - ThePrint - May 9th, 2020
- FDA approves Tabrecta, first targeted therapy to treat metastatic NSCLC - The Cancer Letter - May 9th, 2020
- Research into the health of unborn babies receives government funding - UNSW Newsroom - May 9th, 2020
- Genetics and Weight: Is There an Obesity Gene? - LIVESTRONG.COM - May 9th, 2020
- New medical foundation invests in COVID-19 research funding - News - The University of Sydney - May 9th, 2020
- What Do Your Genetics Have to Do With Your Chances of Dying From Coronavirus? - Vanity Fair - May 3rd, 2020
- Scientists Find New Way to Inject Plants With Medicine, And It May Help Save Our Crops - ScienceAlert - May 3rd, 2020
- Sarepta Therapeutics Announces Research Agreement with US Department of Defense to Evaluate Multiple Constructs From its Proprietary RNA Platform as... - May 3rd, 2020
- Evanston hospitals expand to antibody testing - The Daily Northwestern - May 3rd, 2020
- Profits and Pride at Stake, the Race for a Vaccine Intensifies - The New York Times - May 3rd, 2020
- Data On Thousands Of Twins Reveals How Genetics Influences Covid-19 Symptoms - IFLScience - May 3rd, 2020
- The pieces of the puzzle of covid-19s origin are coming to light - The Economist - May 3rd, 2020
- LIST: UW awards $2.2 million to groups, scientists fighting the coronavirus in Wisconsin - WMTV - May 3rd, 2020
- World Laughter Day 2020: Why we must remember that laughter is indeed the best medicine - Hindustan Times - May 3rd, 2020
- When COVID-19 Mutates, What Are the Risks? - MedicineNet - May 3rd, 2020
- Facts that China is trying to suppress about origin of COVID-19 - WION - May 3rd, 2020
- COVID-19: What's RNA research got to do with it? - University of Rochester - May 3rd, 2020
- Medical, tech investments pay off in Covid-19 war - The Straits Times - May 3rd, 2020
- Welcome to the kingdom of the sick - Salon - May 3rd, 2020
- Safety considerations with chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin in the management of SARS-CoV-2 infection - CMAJ - May 3rd, 2020
- XBiotech Identifies Super Bloods for the Development of a True Human COVID-19 Therapy - GlobeNewswire - May 3rd, 2020
- On National DNA Day, scientists are trying to take the colonialism out of genetics - Massive Science - April 26th, 2020
- Turning On the 'Off Switch' in Cancer Cells - Michigan Medicine - April 26th, 2020
- Turkey's top scientific body invests TL 2.3 billion on 16 vaccine projects over 5 years | Daily Sabah - Daily Sabah - April 26th, 2020
- Covid-19 will pass. What about the racism it has illuminated? - STAT - April 26th, 2020
- Infection Rate May Indicate a Future Diagnosis of Cancer - Cancer Network - April 26th, 2020
- Misleading coronavirus information falsely attributed to Johns Hopkins - AFP Factcheck - April 26th, 2020
- He signed up for a coronavirus vaccine trial using a method that's never been used in humans. Here's why. - CNN - April 26th, 2020
- New study could lead to therapeutic interventions to treat cocaine addiction - Newswise - April 26th, 2020
- As Cuomo Issues New Executive Order, Weill Cornell Medicine Ramps Up COVID-19 Testing - Cornell University The Cornell Daily Sun - April 26th, 2020
- Another Step Towards Earlier Detection of Pancreatic Cancer - MedPage Today - April 26th, 2020
- UW president, biochemistry chair and mathematics professor named to American Academy of Arts and Sciences - UW News - April 26th, 2020
- Mustang Bio Receives Advanced Therapy Medicinal Product Classification from European Medicines Agency for MB-107 Lentiviral Gene Therapy for X-Linked... - April 26th, 2020
- Childhood Psychopathology Linked to Higher Levels of Genetic Vulnerability of Adult Depression - Clinical OMICs News - April 26th, 2020
- Gdask scientist makes crucial headway in understanding killer virus by isolating COVID-19 DNA from infected patient - The First News - April 26th, 2020
- Ethiopia's Ministry of Health Holds Webinar With Diaspora on COVID-19 Response at Tadias Magazine - Tadias Magazine - April 26th, 2020
- Immunity and our DNA: Why women are the stronger sex - The Age - April 26th, 2020
- Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier inaccurately claims that the novel coronavirus is man-made and contains genetic material from HIV - Health Feedback - April 26th, 2020
- Concert Genetics Presents Real-World Data on Utilization of NGS-Based Diagnostic Tests in NCCN 2020 Abstract - news-herald.net - April 2nd, 2020
- What scientists know about COVID-19 -- and what they don't - PBS NewsHour - April 2nd, 2020
- UVA Finds Way to Improve Cancer Outcomes by Examining Patients' Genes - University of Virginia - April 2nd, 2020
- Brown Alpert Medical School Autism Expert on Latest Advances in Research and Testing - GoLocalProv - April 2nd, 2020
- Coronavirus testing is ramping up. Here are the new tests and how they work. - Livescience.com - April 2nd, 2020
- Muscular Dystrophy Association Announces Formation of Strategic Medical Advisory Team of Experts in Neuromuscular Care and Research - PRNewswire - April 2nd, 2020
- Modalis Obtains Access to Foundational CRISPR IP - BioSpace - April 2nd, 2020
- Group behind NYC COVID-19 tent hospital is forcing medical workers to abide by anti-gay statement of faith - Metro Weekly - April 2nd, 2020