Bioengineering future Martian colonists may be easier than taking the many difficult steps to reduce radiation exposure. But is it ethical?
Unless we live underground or use cumbersome radiation shielding at all times, tweaking the human genome may be easier if not necessarily safer.
As George Church, a Harvard geneticist and leading synthetic biologist, argues: "One likely path for risk reduction in space does seem to involve biological engineering of adult would-be astronauts." He has identified 40-some genes that might be advantageous for long-term spaceflight (and would benefit those who stayed behind, too). His list includes CTNNBI, which confers radiation resistance, LRPD5, which builds adamantine bones, ESPA1 (common in Tibetans), which allows people to live with less oxygen, as well as a host of genes that might make us smarter, more memorious, or less anxious. The menu even includes a gene, ABC11, which endows its possessors with "low-odor production," a friendly trait in a confined space. (A spaceship with standard humans smells like the Harris County Jail, according to one recent inhabitant of the space station.)
Church cofounded Harvard Medical School's Consortium for Space Genetics, along with other prominent biologists like the anti-aging researcher David Sinclair, in order to study human health in space and promote exploration.