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GMAs: Genetically Modified Astronauts

by Will Wlizlo

Tags: genetically modified humans, astronauts, space travel, interplanetary colonization, science and technology, Reason, Will Wlizlo,


Small farmers, conscious consumers, and conservationists of all stripes are, at the very least, wary of genetically modified crops. They’re a wild, largely untested disruptor in already-fragile ecosystems that have gotten along just fine without any intrinsically-tinkered species. But that hesitancy doesn’t really hold water if there’s no ecosystem to begin with. Like on Mars, say.

Mars’ atmosphere boasts one-hundredth the density of Earth’s, which will pose a deadly radiation threat to any life that might ever try to inhabit it, including human colonists. According to Reason’s Tim Cavanaugh, “Any crew dispatched on the 18-to-30-month mission to Mars will face highly elevated risks of cancer, tissue degradation, bone density loss, brain damage, pharmaceutical spoilage, and other health threats.”

You could argue that, of course, humans didn’t evolve alongside the Martian landscape. But that’s just you muzzling your inner science-fiction geek. Why let a little thing like “near-inhospitability of a planet” crush our dreams of solar system stretching Manifest Destiny? That, suggests Cavanaugh, is where genetic engineering comes in.

Human enhancement—creating a pre-adapted colonist—may be the only way to survive the initially hostile terrain of other planets. Which only makes sense for an intelligent, multi-planetary species. “A future for humans on Mars,” writes Cavanaugh, “requires us to clear a conceptual hurdle, to accept that the human form is not a norm or an ideal or even a default. It’s how intelligent life adapted, with many inefficiencies, to a particular place.”

Some scientific inquiry, according to Cavanaugh’s reporting, is already brewing to develop organisms suited for life on Mars. He spoke to Peter H. Diamandis, the CEO of the X Prize Foundation, about various privately-funded ventures for interplanetary travel. “There’s no question,” Diamandis said,

that we will soon be in a position to genetically develop specific strains of bacteria and perhaps algae that can live under Martian conditions. The X Prize has been looking at a $1 million competition [for] the first team to adapt an Earth-based single-cell life form that can grow under the pressure, temperature, and atmospheric CO2 levels of Mars.

This seems like a necessary arena of scientific study to explore if we wish to boldly go where no genetically modified human has gone before.

Source: Reason (not yet available online) 

Image by NASA Goddard, licensed under Creative Commons.