The Gap Between the Stars

Featured in Biocoder, an O’Reilly Media publication

Ryan Bethencourt

Elon Musk announced that he and SpaceX want to colonize Mars with millions of people within the next 20 years. While Dawn, NASA’s probe, is orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres, NASA plans future probes to dive deep into Europa looking for signs of life, as well as a space submarine to navigate Titan’s methane seas. India is taking great leaps toward its first manned space mission, in a race with China and Europe. Things look bright for space exploration, yet something is missing.

Robotic exploration is accelerating, but biology is being left behind. Space is a hostile place for biology; no gravity, no atmosphere, the risk of decompression, and that’s just the start! The Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field shield us from 99.9% of the cosmic radiation in the open black void of space.

As we look to the stars, life may have found fascinating and surprising places to live. Perhaps there are new forms of life, as of yet unimagined, that exist in sub- terranean soil on Mars or deep in the oceans of Europa, waiting for our first robotic emissaries.

And What Happens When We Find Life?

To traverse the biologically hostile expanse of space, either we’ll have to shield ourselves from radiation through extraordinary means (think massive masses), or we will have to figure out how to understand and aggressively cure every conceiva- ble form of cancer because in space, it’ll be a daily risk. Applied, interdisciplinary biology is woefully underfunded, and with stagnant NASA, National Science Foundation (NSF), and National Institutes of Health (NIH) funding in the US, it’s unclear where the money for black skies research will come from.

Humanity stands on the verge of glimpsing at least some of the variety of life that likely exists throughout our own solar system, but before we do, we need to understand so much more about our own bodies. Why is it that mammals can’t reproduce without embryonic defects in microgravity environments? Will our


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future space-faring descendants be infertile? How will magnetic fields and varying light levels of other planets like Mars affect us? How will we eat and grow food in zero or lower gravity environments? Can we fight the muscle- and bone-wasting effects of microgravity with biotech? Can we use biology to evolve new biomateri- als on Mars? How about Venus or Europa? How do we recycle our waste or our atmosphere when most of our controlled environment experiments, like the Bio- sphere 2, have failed?

If we one day want to see humanity as a space-faring civilization, we need to imagine, fund, and build early-stage biotechnologies that can be used both in space and here on Earth. Stanford University, Brown University, and NASA’s iGEM work on Hell Cells. They installed and tested five parts from various organ- isms for base, desiccation, cold, and radiation resistance with the goal of building an organism that could grow and survive on Mars (and perhaps one day provide food and breathable atmosphere for us).

Terraforming alien environments is only just the start. Bell Biosystems, Blue Turtle, and other biotech companies have begun looking at reprogramming human bodies (through new synthetic organelles) and microbiomes (through genetically modified gut flora) to produce medicines and increased resistance to terran diseases that will have applications as we start to encounter harsher biologi- cal environments. We are shifting to programmable “smart” cells that can respond to new environments that our biology has yet to encounter. The only way to bridge the biological gap is to build it!

May we live in interesting times!