Do you dream of going to the moon? Living on Mars? Visiting planets beyond our solar system?
I love to travel. But I’m not sure my body (or my mind) is up to the challenge of going into space. Specially trained astronauts have visited the moon and lived on the ISS (shout out to my fav, Chris Hadfield) by taking extreme measures to protect themselves both mentally and physically. What happens if an ordinary person like me wants—or in fact needs—to take the next step of moving to another planet?
Most of the time, when we think about colonizing another planet, we imagine terraforming it—or changing it—to suit us. But what if instead we could change ourselves to suit it?
Sound like something from a low budget science fiction film? Maybe. But let’s take a look at what kinds of changes might be necessary for humans to be able to live happily ever after somewhere far, far away.
There are lots of things we’d have to consider in adapting ourselves to life on another planet as outlined in this detailed article from the Genetic Literacy Project. Here’s a sample:
- Gravity – low gravity causes a decrease in bone mass, which can lead to broken bones and osteoporosis
- Atmospheric Pressure & Gas Ratios – low pressure can result in less oxygen, which we need to breathe
- Solar Radiation – low amounts of sun exposure can lead to vitamin D deficiency; high levels increase cancer risks
At this point, I’m sure you’re thinking those are pretty big things. How could we possibly change ourselves to suit life on a planet even slightly different than our own without space suits and plastic domes?
Physical adaptation as we know it is part of a slow evolutionary process that relies on random changes to DNA that make us more suited to the environment we live in (the topic of my next book—stay tuned!). But with the discovery of CRISPR, we now have a way of speeding up this process through gene editing.
Here’s how gene editing could help us adapt to the conditions above:
- A specific mutation in the LRP5 gene causes people to have higher bone density, which could make them more suited to life in low or even zero gravity
- Scientists have identified changes in several genes that allow people to live in high altitudes (such as Sherpas in Nepal) and survive high pressure (such as deep sea divers)
- Skin pigmentation—another trait controlled by (you guessed it) genes—can influence both cancer risk and vitamin D update depending on the level of solar radiation
With CRISPR, it may one day be possible to edit our genes in specific ways to produce the traits we desire. This comes with some serious concerns. What if end up living in a society where some people are engineered for space travel and others are engineered for work in an underground mine?
To find out more about genes, CRISPR, and the different ways gene editing could become part of our future, pre-order CRISPR: A Powerful Way to Change DNA. Its available through Annick Press , online retailers and your local bookstore.
Image credits: Creative Tail (Wikipedia Commons), Clipart Lord (Wikimedia Commons, ArtsyBee (pixabay.com)