Humans of the future: “Modifying DNA to live on other planets”
Geneticist Chris Mason has just published a book explaining how our DNA must be modified to adapt to life on another planet.
As adaptable as humans are, our bodies suffer when we leave the living conditions of Earth.
Chris Mason is Associate Professor of Physiology, Biophysics and Computational Genomics at Weill Cornell Medical College.
He led one of ten teams of researchers chosen by NASA to compare the genetic and physiological changes between astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a year on the International Space Station, and his twin brother, Mark Kelly, who spent the same time on Earth.
Mason also works with NASA designing the metagenome for life in space and collaborates on the 500 Year Plan, a plan to ensure the long-term survival of Earth’s inhabitants.
His latest book is titled “The Next 500 Years: Designing Life to Conquer New Worlds” .
“The principle of the book is that I want to expose what I think and hope will happen in the next 500 years,” Mason explains in an interview with Russian media.
“This not only includes the technology behind how we might get to another planet and survive there, but also the moral argument for why we have to go there. »
As for the latter, Mason believes that estimates that Earth has 4.7 billion years left before it becomes uninhabitable are overly optimistic.
For the researcher, unless another extinction event occurs before, such as an asteroid impact, we have at most a billion years left on this planet.
“Doing research in the book, I saw that in a billion years the Sun’s brightness will increase enough to probably start boiling the oceans,” he says.
“We might be able to live underground for a while,” says Mason, who also believes we have a genetic duty to protect our species and seek out other planets that will allow us to move forward.
The genetic changes that will allow us to live on Mars
For Mason, the first stop on this interstellar journey must be Mars. “The Earth is fabulous, we just know that it has a limited time”, explains the researcher.
“Mars is not plan B, it’s plan A. Whatever happens, at some point, we have to get out of the solar system. We need to determine where we can start this process.
But to go to Mars, we still have technological and biological challenges to overcome. The genetic study that Mason participated in, which the Kelly brothers participated in, showed that the human body suffers when it spends too much time in space.
Scott, who spent 12 months on the International Space Station, experienced loss of muscle mass, including that of his heart, alterations in his DNA, decalcification of bones and alterations in his immune system compared to his brother stayed on Earth.
“The body is very adaptable. When you return from space, everything can go back to normal for the most part. But it’s not pleasant, it’s very hard on the body,” says Mason.
“If you look at the molecular signatures of spaceflight, they look a lot like a really bad cold or even a serious injury. It is clear that the immune system is on high alert. He tries to adapt to a very different and unusual environment. »
Despite this, Mason believes that while the body is not designed to live on another planet, it can adapt to high radiation and lack of resources.
For the researcher, the changes necessary for this adaptation are based on the science and technology that already exist today. A fundamental tool in this regard will be gene therapy, which allows parts of our DNA to be switched on and off.
“We still have the gene to make our own vitamin C: it’s in our DNA, but in a broken form,” Mason explains.
For the researcher, this power to manage cells would allow us to live on the planet of our choice. Mason calls this cellular and planetary freedom, and apart from modifying already developed bodies, it can be applied to the gestation of fetuses in artificial wombs that give them a better chance of survival on another planet.
This technology also already exists and we recently saw it applied to the development of a sheep, from embryo to birth.
Although Mason’s plan is set 500 years into the future, he thinks it shouldn’t be long before we put it into action. Just a few decades.
This is the time it will take, he says, for us to be ready to colonize Mars. “The first humans are supposed to be on Mars in 2035. It’s not that far away,” says the researcher.
“Twenty years from now, the question will have to be asked: what if someone leaves and stays on Mars for five years or more? “.
“It’s probably going to be somebody who’s 10 years old today who gets picked in 20 or 30 years to go on some of these really tough missions. »