Genetically engineering humans to survive missions to Mars is coming

We might one day combine tardigrade DNA into our own cells.

18 June 2020

(Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech)

One of the biggest concerns that space agencies like NASA and SpaceX have when it comes to bringing humans to Planet Mars is survival.

Humans are poorly suited to life in space. The BBC reports:

We are products of 3.8 billion years of evolution in a comfy 1g oxygen-rich biosphere, protected by a magnetic bubble (the magnetosphere) from the harshness of the Universe. Away from the Earth, astronauts are bombarded by cosmic radiation and suffer nausea, muscle and bone loss, deteriorating eyesight and even weakened immune systems as a result of zero gravity.

Yet as scientists and inventors from Steven Hawking to Elon Musk have pointed out, we may need to leave Earth and journey to new planets if humanity is going to survive in the long term. In March 2018, Musk said that humans must prioritise the colonisation of Mars so the species can be conserved in the event of a third world war.

Now, a new study is proposing that genetic engineering may be the key to surviving life on the Red Planet. Space.com reports:

Chris Mason, a geneticist and associate professor of physiology and biophysics at Weill Cornell University in New York, has investigated the genetic effects of spaceflight and how humans might overcome these challenges to expand our species farther into the solar system. One of the (strangest) ways that we might protect future astronauts on missions to places like Mars, Mason said, might involve the DNA of tardigrades, tiny micro-animals that can survive the most extreme conditions, even the vacuum of space!

Mason led one of the 10 teams of researchers NASA chose to study twin astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly. Mason studied the effects of space on Scott who spent a year aboard the International Space Station and Mark who stayed back on Earth.

Based on their study, although astronauts can counter the effects of space by taking prescribed medicine, gene editing might be the better course to take in the long run and could “make humans more capable of travelling farther into space and even to planets such as Mars”.

But Mason admits that any human-tardigrade gene hacking is still decades away.

“I don’t have any plans of having engineered astronauts in the next one to two decades,” Mason told Space.com. “If we have another 20 years of pure discovery and mapping and functional validation of what we think we know, maybe by 20 years from now, I’m hoping we could be at the stage where we would be able to say we can make a human that could be better surviving on Mars.”

GEN notes that, “Because missions to Mars – which are planned for the near future (2020s and 2030s) – could last up to three years, more long-term studies are necessary to understand the impact of longer durations in space on the human body.”

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