One radical option is to modify the DNA of space explorers to using controversial gene-editing technology. Much like Sam Worthington in the 2018 Sci-Fi flick “The Titan,” astronauts would be engineered to deal with the harsh toll of space travel.
And NASA-backed researchers have already begun to investigate the possibility, reports The Times.
One experiment at Cornell University is looking at taking a gene copied from a tiny but hardy creature and inserting it into embryonic human cells grown in a laboratory.
The tardigrade, also known as the water bear, is smaller than a grain of table salt but has a remarkable resistance to cancer-causing cosmic radiation that astronauts would encounter exploring outer space.
“We’ll protect the astronauts physically, we’ll protect them pharmacologically,” Dr. Christopher Mason, lead scientists on the project, told The Times.
“But could we protect them genetically, with armor on the inside of their cells?”
However, the technology faces huge ethical and legal hurdles and remains decades away from ever being implemented.
It involves taking the super-gene in question and using a virus to permanently weave it into a person’s DNA.
Scientists still have no idea what the long-term effects such a change might have on someone’s mental and physical health.
More than 40 other genes that could benefit astronauts have been tracked down by Harvard University geneticist Professor George Church.
One, found in Tibetans, allows them to function at the top of mountains, where there is very little oxygen.
Transferred to astronauts, the trait could help them survive on a limited supply of the gas.
Other genes promise to boost memory and strength, or make someone less sensitive to pain or anxiety.
Another, known as the ABC11 gene, is linked with sweat that doesn’t smell as bad, potentially benefiting space explorers in cramped spaces.
Gene scientists Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, of the Francis Crick Institute in London, told The Times that the tardigrade DNA idea was “an interesting one, but I suspect rather premature”.
Each change to human DNA would need to go through lengthy assessments for safety and efficacy, he added.
“And there is a question as to who would volunteer to have probably permanent changes made to their [DNA],” Professor Lovell-Badge said.
“It’s a type of enhancement which could be considered to be for social rather than personal gain.”
Even those behind the experiment admit it’s a long way off from a fully-fledged NASA program.
“I don’t have any plans of having engineered astronauts in the next one to two decades,” lead scientist Mason told an audience at a US space conference in October.
Speaking at the 8th Human Genetics in NYC Conference, he said he hoped to have confirmed the modification worked on humans some time in the next two decades.
“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,” Mason said.
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