The next 500 years

By Natasha Kisseroudis

Hosted by the Royal Institution, geneticist and computational biologist Christopher E. Mason gave a talk providing a detailed roadmap for the next 500 years of space exploration. Ultimately, the endpoint of the ten phase plan is the ability for humans to be genetically engineered into a multi-planetary species, able to live on other planets, and maybe even solar systems. 

Phase 1: (2010-2021)

The first phase consists of functional annotation of the human genome to determine which genes must not be altered. This will limit the pool of allowed gene modifications and prevent damage when genetically engineering humans to live on other planets in the future.To find out more about the effects space travel has on the human body and DNA, numerous astronaut outlier studies have been conducted. 

Most notable, was the study of identical twins Mark and Scott Kelly which provided a vast amount of information regarding the bodily changes humans experience in space. For example, when Scott Kelly returned to Earth after having spent a year in orbit, his telomeres had lengthened. An individual’s telomeres shorten with age, therefore Scott became younger in space. He also grew 2 inches taller, while his body fluids accumulated in his chest and heart due to the lack of gravitational pull in space. Differences were also observed in Scott’s microbiome, metabolome and cognition, and his cytokines spiked in flight. Once he returned to Earth, his telomere length, height and immune system returned to normal state. 

Phase 2: (2021-2040)

This phase consists of conducting more astronaut studies like the Mark and Scott Kelly study in order to make the findings more broadly applicable. . The plan is to test the impact of spaceflight on cells, integrate new elements into mammalian genomes, and eventually land the first astronaut on Mars. A rover has been sent to Mars to obtain samples from Mars and is scheduled to return in 2032. Researchers are eager to see if any DNA will be observed. 

Phase 3: (2041-2050)

The objective of this phase is to protect individuals from hazards that are known to exist on Mars. Specifically, during flight, an astronaut’s DNA is damaged due to the radiation that exists in space. However, radiation levels on Mars are even higher. One solution could be underground shelters on Mars that would use geothermal heat to protect humans from radiation and the cold. A second approach is genetically engineering humans to reverse DNA damage. This can be done through, for example, increasing the levels of the p53 protein in humans, which is involved in repairing damage to DNA. For example, elephants have higher levels of p53, which reduces their risk of cancer, due to a lower amount of DNA damage (Callaway, 2015). This phase raises a number of ethical concerns as the process of modifying the human genome has been rendered unethical. However, ethical criteria are satisfied by epigenetic CRISPR which involves switching already existing genes on and off without altering the genome (Kang, Park, Ko and Kim, 2019).For instance, protective alleles could be expressed before and during the time that individuals spend exposed to high levels of radiation. This procedure could be utilised to protect astronauts from the hazardous levels of radiation present on Mars. Ultimately Mason expects that by the end of this phase new genomes and cells will have been engineered containing protective mechanisms against known space hazards.

Phase 4: (2051-2060)

Mason stated that the aim for Phase 4 is a Mars base camp, that is, an orbiting space station around Mars. Moreover, there are plans to test the new protected human space genomes and cells in space environments. In addition to testing these protective human space genomes and cells in space, Mason hopes that this phase will mark the end of “molecular ineptitude”. This will be done through switching on the vitamin C synthesizing pseudogene that is still present in humans, deriving essential amino acid synthesising enzymes from species that contain them, and introducing them into human cells in order to limit human food supply needs in space. This could also mean making human cells autotrophic if ethics allow. 

Phase 5  and Phase 6: (2061-2150)

These phases mark the beginning of newly genetically engineered humans settling on other planets. This involves expanding new genomes to tolerate extreme conditions based on the findings of the Extreme Microbiome Project, which consists of profiling organisms that have adapted and survive in extreme conditions such as the hot sulphur springs in Ethiopia. 

Phase 7: (2151-2300)

This phase aims to make Mars self-sufficient and prepare Mars for human settlement. This will have been done by sending new genomes to seed on Mars and other Earth-like planets with the hope that when humans eventually arrive on Mars, on-demand pharmaceuticals, large scale fermentation, and crop development will already exist  and they will not need to rely on imports from Earth. 

Phase 8: (2301-2400)

This phase consists of selecting new candidate planets for human colonisation, as Mason and his colleagues hope that humans will be adapted to be able to have a multiplanetary existence on various Earth-like planets. Many other Earth-like planets have already been found using a similarity index factor, which is calculated from  planet density, solar flux, and equilibrium temperature of the surface of the planet. Thousands of potentially habitable planets have been found, and new ones are being discovered every day.

Phase 9: (2401-2510)

This phase consists of the shipment of humans to Earth-like planets such as Mars and exoplanets further afield. Assuming the speed of propulsion does not increase, this means that 20 generations may live and die on the same aircraft just to make it to one of the favourable exoplanets. This raises ethical concerns and would be unimaginable but for the COVID-19 pandemic, which has shown how the totality of human culture can be accessed digitally. Mason stated, “the people on that aircraft would be viewed as the pioneers of humanity”.

Phase 10: (2511-indefinite)

Consists of selecting babies for favourable genomes that would allow extraplanetary survival. The first baby is born on Mars.

Why do this?

At the end of his talk, Christopher Mason dwelled on the philosophical and ethical concerns about the 500 year plan. He argued that as humans, we have a desire to explore, but more importantly, are the only species aware of extinction. Moreover , we are the only species aware that all life on Earth has an expiration date. Therefore, we have a duty to life to explore other planets  in order to preserve the human race and other life form. Lastly, he is aware that humans have caused many issues on Earth, but argues that as a species, we can both work on fixing those issues, and explore other planets. He argues that our primary and fundamental ethic should be survival, and we must strive to preserve life as there is no guarantee that life, an extremely rare phenomenon in the entire universe, will spontaneously arise again. Ultimately,he argues that whether you are Kantian or Utilitarian, you cannot put your ethical beliefs into practice if you are extinct. 

References:

Callaway, E., 2015. How elephants avoid cancer. [online] Nature News. Available at: <https://www.nature.com/news/how-elephants-avoid-cancer-1.18534&gt; [Accessed 28 April 2021].

Mason, C. E., 2021. The Next 500 Years: Engineering life to reach new worlds. (Royal Institution). Delivered Tuesday, 20 April 2021 19:00 (BST)

Kang, J., Park, J., Ko, J. and Kim, Y., 2019. Regulation of gene expression by altered promoter methylation using a CRISPR/Cas9-mediated epigenetic editing system. Scientific Reports, 9(1).

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