February 16, 2003
What Biotech Could Do For Space Travel

When most people think of space travel they typically think of rockets, spaceships, propulsion systems, spacesuits, and structures to ship to Moon or Mars colonies to live in. The key role that biotechnology could play in enabling space travel and colonization is too often ignored. I'd like to bring up a number of ways that biotechnological advances could enable space travel and colonization.

One big problem with space travel is that the costs per pound or kilogram sent are incredibly high. Spacefarers need ways to make consumables en route and once they have arrived at their destinations. A number of problems need to be solved to make space travel and space colonies feasible. Some of those problems must be solved with a biological approach. Others, while they could be solved with biotech, may be solvable using other approaches as well.

Human Hibernation

This is an approach for reducing consumables on a long space voyage and also for reducing the psychological strain of long journeys in small spaces.

One approach is to try to replicate the state that hibernating animal species enter into. The study of the molecular biology of hibernation may yield valuable information. It may not be possible to safely put a human body into a hibernation-like state for weeks and months at a time. Species that hibernate may have metabolic differences that are so drastic that adjusting humans to have the ability to hibernate for a long time might very difficult. One objective of hibernation research should be to discover how extensive the metabolic changes are in hibernation in order to determine whether hibernation is an approach worth pursuing.

A more limited adjustment that increases the number of hours slept per day could probably be achieveable with much less modification of human physiology.

Another approach would be to slow the metabolism down into a state that mimics the state achieved by those practicing calorie restriction. Drugs that reduce appetite and slow down metabolism would also decrease the rate of consumption of food. This approach would not provide as much relief from the strain of extended confinement.

Adjust Human Bodies to Low and Zero Gravity

Techniques for manipulating human metabolism to adapt it to space travel and to low gravity Mars and Moon colonies are probably not optional for colonization. Mars has only 0.377 of Earth's gravity and the Moon is even worse with only 0.166 of Earth's gravity. It is likely that extended living in such low gravity environments will cause problems for human health. Bones may weaken so much that return to Earth may become impossible or extremely difficult. Muscles similarly will atrophy. Plus, the lower need for blood circulation may cause inflammation and atherosclerosis. It is likely there are other longer term effects of low and zero gravity living that will need to be solved.

Centrifugal spaceships can only solve the problem that low gravity poses for human health for the trips to and from Moons and planets. But since moons and some planets have lower gravity than Earth the problem needs a more general solution. That solution must be a method of manipulating human metabolism to adapt it to low gravity living.

A Closed Biosphere

Make a closed cycle biosphere for space voyages in order to reduce the weight in consumables that must be sent with a human crew. Microorganisms could be genetically engineered to recycle waste and produce food. If a spaceship is nuclear powered then it will have enough energy to warm and provide light to microorganisms that could be genetically engineered to break down human waste to feed to still other genetically engineered cells that would create food.

The ability to run a closed biosphere implies the ability to grow food. This will be useful not just for reducing weight requirements for food eaten during long journeys to colonies but also for the food eaten at the destinations. Closed biosphere research is probably the most important area where work is needed to support colonization.

Structure producing plants and microorganisms

Mars colonists will need materials suitable for building structures. Chairs, bedframes, baby cribs, walls, and ceilings are just a few of the types of structures they will need to be able to build. Trees grow too slowly and take up too much space. What is needed is a way to use energy from a nuclear power plant to create organic materials to feed organisms that can create materials with wood-like qualities.

Textile Fiber Producing Microorganisms

Mars colonists will need clothes. They'll need bedsheets, pillow cases, napkins, towels, rags, and materials for furniture covering. Any need for textiles that exists on Earth likely will exist on Mars as well. Genetic engineering could produce plants capable of making fibers suitable for textile production. Either the genes for making silk could be genetically engineered into microorganisms or something similar could be done with cotton plant genes. It might even be possible to use cotton plant cells but engineer them to make cotton fibers without being attached to a full plant.

Medicine and Vaccine Producing Plants and Microorganisms.

This is a hard one to solve because there are so many drugs that would eventually be useful on Mars. Each drug requires its own series of synthesis steps.

Some vaccine producing plants are under development. But they are less useful on Mars in part because there won't be as many diseases to contend with. Colonists won't exactly have to worry about getting malaria from mosquitoes. Plus, their numbers will be so low initially that diseases that pass from person to person won't have a way to be maintained. Plus, all the colonists can be vaccinated before they leave Earth.

Another reason vaccine creation on Mars will probably not be reliant on plants or microorganisms is that a single device capable of making DNA vaccines could make all the types of DNA vaccines needed. While drugs each need their own unique set of chemical synthesis steps DNA vaccines all will use the same series of 4 (Adenosine, Cytosine, Thymidine, and Guanidine) chemical letters to make them. A single general purpose DNA sequencer that can be programmed to make any DNA sequence could be used to make all types of DNA vaccines. A lot of groups are working on DNA vaccines and it is reasonable expect that the optimal DNA sequences for a wide range of DNA vaccines will be available in 10 or 20 years.

Priorities for Research and Development

Most of the items above would have plenty of commercial uses here on planet Earth. Most of the advances needed will be done for other reasons.

The effects of low gravity effects on the human body have got to be the biggest set of problems. Progress will be made on these problems due to biomedical research efforts for problems that humans have here on Earth. Scientists will figure out how weight is used to signal bones to grow and the mechanisms by which muscles are signalled to grow will be elucidated as well. The knowledge gained from such reseach will be useful in treating aging-related changes and for injury healing. While that research will provide a firm foundation upon which to develop drugs, gene therapies, and other techniques to deal with extended living in low gravity environments a substantial amount of research work will still have to be done for that specific purpose. Humans are adapted to the force of one Earth gravity.

Beyond adapting humans to low gravity environments the biggest need is to be able to produce consumables for longer term living. The spaceships used to travel to Mars or the Moon will provide some shelter. Clothing made of long-lasting materials can last for years. So there shouldn't be much need to produce new clothing for the first few years. Methods to grow food and to maintain a closed biosphere would address another really big need.

We do not just need bigger and better rockets and spaceships in order to set up space colonies on the Moon or Mars. There are difficult problems in biology that must be solved. The biggest set of problems concern the human body. We are designed to live in a very narrow range of conditions. Even if we could cheaply go to other places we could not sustain human settlements under conditions for which we are not adapted. Until the basic problems are solved we can only visit other places and then only at great expense.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2003 February 16 11:03 PM  Space Exploration


Comments
Bob said at February 17, 2003 10:17 AM:

Perhaps the biggest biotech challenge for human colonization involves gestation and reproduction under reduced gravity.

Dr. Floyd said at February 9, 2004 10:11 AM:

I think oxygen is the biggest challenge, followed closely by water. Not sure that current biology/chemistry has solved this yet.

Jeeves said at March 7, 2004 11:02 AM:

I seriously think that if we could simulate gravity in a ship maybe give the body a feeling of gravity then we could focus on other problems in space like oxygen, food, gas etc....

Matt said at March 14, 2004 9:27 PM:

Biotechnology, that which recombines nucleic acids on the scale of viral genomes, should be done outside the biosphere, at least as far away as the moon.

CaptianM said at May 15, 2005 12:21 PM:

If we were able to genetically modify the human bone structure to either livewith low gravity
the best bet would to make humans with a cartrillage like bone structure
in low grav that would be best for our bodies that way our need for calcium and exercise will be greatly lowered

vanessa said at September 16, 2005 5:00 PM:

i would like to know about some items that were made by nasa for space travel and other benefits of it. if it can be used in any other ways. or new products that they have made in order to make things more convinient for space travel. do you think that maybe you may be able to find some info on that?

joe said at December 11, 2005 11:24 AM:

cool i agree with you

joe said at December 11, 2005 11:29 AM:

man will go to mars. About 100 years authors were writing books about going to the moon and amn did go to the moon. Now authors are writing books about going to mars and we will go to mars that means.

Christian Brody said at February 3, 2006 7:30 AM:

What is the effect of space travel have on your hematologic and immunologic system? What can you do to prevent it in space?

Thank you
Christian L. Brody

R. W. said at February 20, 2006 12:29 AM:

Hi! I don't quite understand HOW we're going to get to those places...what forms of transportation have we come up with that will allow up to accomplish that?

D.A. said at February 26, 2006 4:19 AM:

It seems that very few people,(including aeronautical engineers and scientists) have considered the long term effect of low gravity on human physiological development.

In spite of the fact that this factor is far more critical to the viability of exocolonization than even atmospheric composition, density, pressure, ambient temperature and liquid water.

Science Fiction has typically presented a delusional vision of space exploration, and exocolonization
depicting space colonists as physiologically normal, and whose primary concern is space fashion and alien attacks.

The most obvious (and serious) effect of low gravity would be on skeletal and muscle developement,
where humans would become extreme ectomorphs (freakishly tall and thin), with bones too fragile and weak for earth gravity.

Therefore any pilrimage to Mars will be a permanent, one way move.
with no option of ever returning to Earth.

Unless of course some artificial gravity solution is found, to maintain a constant 1 g for all colonists
within their bio habitat.

in Space this is not a problem, since artificial gravity can easily be produced in a rotating space station.
on a planet however, this is a major engineering problem.

And even if this problem is solved, then there's the other major problem of cosmic radiation,
since Humans depend on Earth's huge Magnetophere (Van Allen Belt) and Ozone layer for protection.

These protective systems do not exist on the moon or Mars, so until all these problems are solved
we are really kidding ourselves thinking that a Mars colony is just a matter of rocket science.

Matt said at May 11, 2006 3:56 PM:

Nanotechnology will solve all of the problems stated in the article. Nanites will be able to make everything we need, whether its clothes, shelter, food, medicine, water, or whatever else comes up. Medication wont be necessary because the Nanites will be able to destroy any viruses, bacteria or cancers that enter out systems. They could also change our DNA so that we could survive on the planet as soon as we arrive there. The same could be done with plants so that we could grow our own food, but it would be simpler to just have the nanites fabricate it for us.
Also we wouldnt really need pillow cases or napkins or rags, those are just nice to have. If we really felt the need for those, they could all be made out of clothing no longer fit to wear. Again however, nanotechnology could make those for us.
Nanotechnology should be the first priority for researchers, not just for space travel, but also for use on earth. We could remove all illness, weather they were simply cold viruses, or brain tumors. We could easily feed the entire world with nanite-made foods. Of course there are risks, but every technology has risks, the important thing to think about is weather or not the risks out-weigh the rewards. I feel that essentially destroying world hunger, cancer, aids, and all forms of genetic dissorders in a single blow is definatly worth the risks of nanotechnology.

jimmy said at June 3, 2006 7:38 PM:

I would like to know what the most common route is taken by space exploration. For example is there a particular angle and area they try and exit and possibly enter. in addition, it is suggested that emissions from space travel are to small to even effect the atmosphere is this correct. More importantly is it possible that ozone hole are created by space travel, the time lines do seem to match.

conner said at March 20, 2007 8:50 AM:

nano technology is definently the way to go even with the risks.

JACOB.GENETICS said at November 12, 2007 8:58 PM:

I think like the others said about nanotechnology would work but if we do use them I would like to study the nanites 1st hand and witness the risks
that the world would be taking as for an example what if just one nanite had something wrong with it and all nanites started to copy that feature
of the first nanite since nanites do have the description of detail to copy one another to form a group and to create something but then again about the people who said to modify the bone structure that would work i think but what if we modified the bone structure useing a pure unriskful group of nanites then we could use other types of modification like gentics biology ect. I do hope that to whoever reads this and would like to ask me any questions on my thesis I will awnser them the best of my abilities but If this is some buisness like biotech or NASA then please i would be honered if you would contact me at badboy_03_9@hotmail.com and if you do try my thesis and it works all i ask is to get credit for it ill have that credit that uses my thesis


Thank you for reading my statement

JACOB.GENETICS said at November 12, 2007 9:13 PM:

Hello again its me JACOB.GENETICS about this whom this may concern if we can use those machines to make gravity then why not use them on the moon in a unpenetrable air dome? but if theres a proplem with that please email me so I may continue researching and find a way to gentically or in another way modify the human or living organisms body to withstand tremendous gravity temperture exposure and other ways to perfect the living organisms body people always tell me you cant be perfect but...............what if theres a way people say you cant play god but im not trying to do gods job im just trying to allow my fellow people to escape such a horrfying place we live on I refer to it as earth im not trying to become wealthy or famous im trying to help this digusting place we live on every day people dir because of .....disease extreme temperture exposure ect. i just want everyone to try to live but some may not support my theory but im not saying im trying to make everyone immortal or something like that everyone will die because of ...war and old age still but im trying to make a better living that just about sums everything up

Frank Mondana said at February 28, 2010 1:26 PM:

When you really start to research the points brought up, the challenges become even greater.
A closed biosphere may work for a week or a year or a decade but what happens when old fashioned evolution takes place and a "good" microbe becomes mutated. The system could get wiped out in days. Trying to monitor everything down to the molecular level to prevent this is quite an imposing challenge.

Many of these papers leave out one of the biggest challenges of them all - the human mind and behavior. Many astronauts make jokes about being cooped up in a small space for months with the same people. A Mars mission increases that time to years. Then add in the fact that they will not even have the ability to have real time conversations with home. No matter how well trained, screened and tested these folks are , it will not take much for the isolation to erupt.

Nanotech? This is probably a century away if that soon. The tech has to improve to the point that we see in sci-fi. Lots of little machines that can be programmed to keep a human in good working order. What happens if they break or a virus takes hold of the software?

It's easy to look at the big picture and think that we are on the cusp of long term space travel. Once the details get going, the issue gets muddied.

umesh said at June 30, 2014 5:55 AM:

the one Amazing blue pearl in the cosmos called earth..
no place in the space can win it..
it's million times better to be on earth...
rather than wasting time on space travel research..

one life.. one earth.. enjoy it to the core

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