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Life is hard, especially in space, where the odds are truly stacked against you. There are heart and bone changes, sleep disturbances, and muscle ailments associated with space flight. In fact, space is one of the harshest environments known to man, and that’s why it’s particularly exciting to learn that life can not only sustain itself there, but it can thrive.
Last month, China Daily reported on a study conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences which showed that mouse embryos aboard the retrievable research satellite SJ-10 had begun to develop in just under 80 hours, advancing from the two-cell stage to the more refined blastocyst stage. This is the same amount of time it takes on Earth. [China Daily; http://m.phys.org/news/2016-04-microgravity-satellite-explores-embryo-space.html]
These findings were captured on a high-resolution camera that took photographs every four hours and sent them back to Earth over the course of four days. Scientists now plan to compare samples from both Earth and abroad in an effort to further analyze the effects of microgravity on embryo development.
At launch, SJ-10 carried 6,000 mouse embryos. The last time something on that scale was attempted was in 1996, when NASA sent 49 mouse embryos aboard its STS-80 Spacecraft. Not a single one developed, and no other agency even tried it after that. Not until now.
What makes China’s news so remarkable is that it marks the first time that embryos from a mammal have been successfully developed in space. The implications of this are huge for us, since there’s an undeniable human curiosity for journeying to the skies. Whether we roam the universe, scour the planets, or terraform them to meet our own needs, we want to explore.
Duan Enkin, the lead researcher behind the study and a professor at the Chinese Academy’s Institute of Zoology, admits that much of this remains far off. “The human race may still have a long way to go before we can colonize the space,” he tells China Daily. He is encouraged by the findings, though. Where before it was unknown whether or not it was possible to survive and reproduce in space, Enkin says it has now been established that early embryo development, what he calls “the most crucial step in our reproduction,” is possible in other environments.
How far could this take humans? BTR spoke to renowned UCSC planetary scientist Ian Garrick-Bethell about crossing the next frontier.
“This is indeed a crucial first step,” he says, “and it does suggest that humans could one day reproduce and give birth in space.”
That could be a significant advantage, especially on long journeys. “Space is the next obvious place for life to expand into,” he says, adding that a successful future will depend on mammals adapting to the harsh conditions through a combination of exercise and “pharmacological countermeasures.”
Not surprisingly, most research shows that there are major physical advantages to being born here on Earth. Even so, Garrick-Bethell maintains that there could be “enormous emotional, psychological, intellectual, and other intangible benefits given to people that are born off the planet.” He believes that such benefits could “outweigh the physical benefits by far.”
One disadvantage we all surely share is gravity. “It remains to be seen how these mice would develop into adults, and then again how they would survive being exposed to Earth's gravity for the first time," the Garrick-Bethell says. "If these were humans born and raised in weightlessness, would they be able to survive on the planet their spacecraft was destined for?”
Space babies could be at a serious loss. “The health consequences of weightlessness are so severe,” he continues, “that many researchers think that it may be required to provide some type of artificial gravity to astronauts on very long missions, like on the main spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey.” These hazards make the prospect of raising people in weightlessness pretty daunting.
Garrick-Bethell thinks there are other ways to make it work. One is to create life of our own. He envisions “engineering new organisms,” ones that would live in space more effectively. Another idea is to ship out embryos to develop on their own, free of human intervention.
“The idea of sending embryos to other worlds, in place of humans, has been proposed several times,” Garrick-Bethell insists.
Under these proposals, embryos would be “frozen in a state of indefinite suspension, at liquid nitrogen temperatures” and grown and raised once they reached their target planet. He says this cosmic fertilization process would involve the use of “some type of surrogate womb.”
The advantage of this scenario is that there would no longer be a need to support a living crew for extraordinary stretches of time. Garrick-Bethell theorizes that a crew could be out for “potentially thousands of years as they travel to their destination.” There is also the humanitarian aspect, the idea that we might save lives, but then again, how humane is it to send out helpless animals to fend for themselves?
Clearly, there are moral issues, but the professor believes it is worth the cost of life, for the sake of life. “I think it is critical to continue exploring all avenues of developing life that can sustain itself in space.”
What makes that spirit uniquely human is the hope that, beyond self-preservation, we are a bridge to something greater than ourselves, to a higher form of existence.
“I think the idea of embryos in space is fascinating to people on a visceral level because it does contrast the most promising, fragile symbol of life, with the harshest environment we are aware of,” Garrick-Bethell says. That is an incredible dichotomy and a testament to life in general.