Astrobiologists want to gene-hack favorable traits into future Mars astronauts

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It’s no secret that the living conditions on Mars are nothing like those on Earth. Yet, humanity still has its sights set on living amongst the stars. Putting the first colonists on Mars will take a monumental effort from governments and private space companies alike.

However, some scientists are suggesting that it may take more than that. Kennda Lynch, an astrobiologist and geomicrobiologist from the Lunar and Planetary Institute, believes that space agencies should gene-hack future astronauts to make them more compatible with the harsh environment of Mars.

Though the idea sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel, Lynch suggests that it may be the only way to help colonists survive on the Red Planet.

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Preserving the Future

Humanity has done a pretty terrible job of preserving the Earth. Although conservation efforts are getting better, the damage may already be irreversible. As such, one focus of colonizing another planet is to not make the same mistakes twice.

In a webinar last week, Lynch argued that editing the human genome to facilitate survival on Mars is preferable to terraforming the planet to meet humanity’s needs. By doing the latter, future Mars colonists would risk wiping out evidence of native ecosystems.

Lynch says, “How can we do that [identify Martian ecosystems] if we go and change the planet before we go and find out if life actually was living there?”

It’s an interesting outlook. Without some sort of intervention, humans won’t be able to survive on Mars. Massive loads of radiation, bone-wasting microgravity, and countless other dangers would wipe colonists out before they could settle the planet.

Lynch argues that genetically modifying astronauts is the lesser of two evils. Scientists believe that humans could take the example of tardigrades, an extremely resilient microscopic creature that can survive in outer space. Theoretically, a gene-editing tool like CRISPR could be used to give humans some of their hardy traits.

Ethical Conundrum

As always, the topic of gene-hacking is full of ethical dilemmas. The amount of editing that would need to be done for humans to survive on Mars could radically redefine what it means to be human. On the flip side, not offering future colonists every protection possible could leave them to a slow, painful death on a foreign planet.

Fortunately, there should be plenty of time to figure things out. NASA aims to start flying its first manned Mars missions in 2030. That timeline is extremely aggressive and will probably get pushed back.

On top of this, Lynch and others note that only long-term settlers would need extensive genetic modification. Astronauts going to Mars on a visit or for a short stay could likely survive without any serious consequences. Accordingly, only those signing up to settle the Red Planet permanently would need to alter their genome.

Obviously, the idea of gene-hacking humans to better survive in an environment sounds extreme. However, it could become reality if a better way to make Mars habitable isn’t found in the next decade or so.

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