To brave the conditions of microgravity, thin air
and harsh ionizing radiation for any length of time,
humans may need to borrow genes from some of the
hardiest organisms on the planet, Lisa Nip, a
doctoral candidate at the MIT Media Lab in
Cambridge, Massachusetts, said in
a recent TED Talk.
Using the tools of synthetic biology,
scientists could genetically engineer humans, and
the plants and bacteria they bring with them, to
create Earth-like conditions on another planet —
known as terraforming, Nip said. This would be much
more efficient than other proposed terraforming
methods, such as hauling all of the tools to create
a hermetically sealed environment, she added.
Humans are the ultimate homebodies.
Having evolved for hundreds of thousands of years on
oxygen-rich, temperate planet,
humans are uniquely well adapted to Earth's gentle
But space explorers will face much
harsher conditions. In outer space, microgravity can
weaken bones and damage the heart, and ionizing
radiation can wreck DNA, she said.
Even on Mars — by far the most "hospitable" of the seven other
planets in our solar system — the average
temperature is about minus 85 degrees Fahrenheit
(minus 65 degrees Celsius), yearly rainfall is zero,
the miniscule atmosphere offers no shield against
solar radiation and the soil is similar to the
volcanic ash in Hawaii, Nip said.
"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.
Instead of hiding humans behind a wall of
lead or a suit of armor that weighs as much as the
body itself, people should take a page fromextremophile
bacteria already living on Earth, she said. For instance, the
world's toughest bacterium, Deinococcus
withstand 100 times the ionizing radiation that
would kill a human, with no apparent adverse
effects. Scientists already understand some of the
pathways that give D. radiodurans its incredibly hardy nature, so harnessing just a
handful of these could help humans become more
resilient in the harsh environments lurking in the
cosmos, Nip said.
But synthetic biology also could be used
to alter the creatures and flora that humans bring
along for space colonization. For instance, growing
food on Mars with traditional crops means "engineering endless acres
of land on an entirely new planet and releasing
trillions of gallons of atmospheric gases, and then
enclosing it all in a glass dome," Nip said.
Instead, plants could be engineered to be
both more drought-resistant more cold-resistant. For
instance, genes for antifreeze found in fish could
be transplanted into these crops to allow them to
resist the endless winter on the Red Planet, Nip
Of course, genetic engineering has its
risks and ethical challenges. And humans, and all
other organisms for that matter, already have a
time-tested way to adjust to their environment:
evolution that proceeds via natural selection. But
typically, that requires many small changes adding
up over a relatively long period of time, in many,
"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
Instead, humans may need to engage in
targeted evolution at hyperspeed to survive the
vagaries of the cosmos, she said.