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Space exploration and colonization have long been popularized in books, movies, and television shows. As we’ve discovered just how finite our planet’s resources may be, however, the idea of deep space travel might become more of a necessity than a novelty soon.
In her November 2015 TEDx Talk, Lisa Nip detailed that the human body isn’t ready for extended periods of space travel. She did contend, however, that our technology and understanding of synthetic biology would allow us to harness the incredible powers of microbes on Earth to make us more viable in the great beyond. BTRtoday spoke with Nip, who is currently a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab Molecular Machines group.
BTRtoday (BTR): What’s the most important augmentation that current humans would need to undergo in order to survive the perils of space?
Lisa Nip (LN): One of the biggest problems for astronauts who spend time in space is ionizing radiation. They’re high-energy particles that pass right through us, shred our molecules, and basically wreak havoc on us. On a planet like Earth, we have an atmosphere and magnetosphere that filters out the more dangerous radiation like x-rays and gamma rays. But on Mars, or anywhere where there’s just a little atmosphere or complete lack of a magnetic field, being able to handle high amounts of radiation would be critical for long-term survival.
The first augmentation I would look into would be how to make human beings radiation resistant. It has applications here, as well. If there were a nuclear war, it would be very useful for people to be resistant to those damaging particles.
BTR: In your TEDx Talk, you mention the special powers of microbes, specifically Deincoccus radiodurans. What sort of abilities does this bacterium possess?
LN: Deinococcus radiodurans is basically the cockroach of microbes. It’s able to tolerate radiation and other things humans would not like very much, because it has things that are kind of magical to us. The first is incredible DNA-repair enzymes, and the fact that it actually stores multiple copies of its chromosomes so that when one breaks, it has others to rely on to template the broken DNA and repair it. It’s really efficient at repairing damages it sustains.
BTR: How would these abilities be inserted into human beings?
LN: We can’t have microbes transfer their genes directly to us. We would have to basically cut out a bit that we would find useful, put it into humans, and have that be tested. There are two ways that we can use bacteria. One is to actually have the bacteria living on us, around us, making stuff that would be useful to us, such as beta carotene. We don’t make much of it, which is why we eat things like carrots that do. So if we could have bacteria make that kind of thing for us, it could be very helpful.
To directly modify humans, we would probably have to start with human embryos for the trait to be able to be passed on and inherited. Gene therapy is a sort of beta version of this kind of genetic modification that’s being tested right now. It’s basically where an adult human can receive very specific changes to his or her body that can be permanent.
BTR: And there are technologies that can help with this too.
LN: CRISPR is also this new technology that helps us make really specific edits of many organisms. It hasn’t been done extensively on humans because of ethical issues, but the technology is available.
BTR: What do you think will motivate mankind to seek unfamiliar territories outside of Earth for the survival and good of our species?
LN: Unfortunately, humans will always start realizing that we need to get off our planet when something horrible is predicted to happen soon. I feel like we’re mostly procrastinators. It’s a running joke between me and my best friends that we’d need to completely trash the Earth before we realize that we can’t live here anymore and space exploration becomes an urgent necessity.
In my TEDx Talk, I phrased it kind of romantically; that we need to explore because we’ve always been explorers. That’s part of it, but to be completely frank I don’t think that’s going to be the biggest motivating factor. It’s always been financial incentives. It’s why most people, scientists especially, say things like, “we should be a little bit careful here, because people are going to take advantage of the technology.”
I hate to think that most of our species is driven by the desire to strike gold, but that’s just the way humans have always been.
BTR: Where is the line between human defiance of nature and human progression and intelligence leading us to defy nature?
LN: I don’t think there is much of a line at all. I like to think that the moment the human started his or her first fire was the day that we were giving nature the middle finger. I don’t want to say it like nature has an agenda for us, because nature doesn’t really have an agenda—nature just is. We humans learned to harness rational thought and use it to our advantage, but what if that were part of nature too?
The idea that humans defy nature is an illusion. The notion is fueled by the concept that we have a place of grandeur in the ecosystem, but nature created us, and the natural manifestation of our abilities. Is a bird defying nature when it builds a nest or assembles materials into an ordered architecture? It’s really no different than our building of houses, using what’s around us to build something. It’s a part of nature.
BTR: Some people might view the idea of human augmentation as unethical, that it might be reserved only for those able to afford it, or perhaps wielded for more sinister purposes. What are your opinions regarding the broader ethical issues surrounding augmentation?
LN: There is some concern over whose hands the technology falls into, and that should be considered. But the potential for misuse shouldn’t be used as justification for stopping the technology progress. Humans refuse technology, but technology does not refuse technology.
It’s hard for me or anyone else to make cold hard calls on what should or should not be done with human augmentation. We should definitely proceed cautiously, but not so cautiously that it blinds us to the technology’s benefits. In this case I think the benefits would outweigh the potential misuses. This kind of technology would help cure a lot of human diseases, and that’s what it’s being used for right now—to help people with genetically inherited diseases battle against or deal with the effects.
Eventually I think people will naturally come to consensus, but at this point in time, we don’t really know well enough about exactly how it will be misused to make a judgment.