Making a Martian: Is tardigrade genetic modification the key to colonizing Mars?

The astronaut steps onto the rocky surface of Mars, gazing up at the blood-red dust-storm that sweeps through the desolate terrain. After the long months of space travel, the astronaut has finally reached his forever home: the first Mars settlement. But, beneath the spacesuit, this astronaut is no regular human. He can thrive in toxic radiation levels and shares DNA with the world’s most indestructible animal—a Tardigrade. The radiation-resistant Martian is created through a process called gene editing.

Inhabiting Mars may be essential for the survival of homo-sapiens. Steven Hawking has asserted that “The human race is doomed if we do not colonize the Moon and Mars.” In the chance of a disastrous event on Earth, it could be necessary for us to become a multi-planetary species.

Settling Mars presents a plethora of risks to the human body. The most threatening one of all is cosmic radiation. While Earth’s atmosphere acts as a shield against radiation, Mars lacks a protective cocoon, allowing the invisible invader to pass through our bodies. Over time, high energy particles kill cells and damage DNA strands, making the body ripe for cancer-causing mutations. However, if geneticists are able to alter human DNA, astronauts would be able to flourish in the inhospitable environment of Mars. But how does Tardigrade DNA help humans survive the dangers of extraterrestrial living?

The gene editing process involves the insertion of a new gene or modification of an existing gene which would fix vulnerabilities in astronauts that prevent Mars habitation. Dr. Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Cornell who is leading an ongoing gene editing study, believes that combining human and Tardigrade DNA can “armor” human cells against radiation. Resembling a floppy macaroni, the Tardigrade, also known as a “water bear,” is a microscopic animal that can survive in radiation levels 1,000 times higher than any other animal can withstand. According to researchers at the University of Tokyo, this quality is attributed to the Tardigrade’s “adaptation to severe dehydration,” which can be equally destructive as radiation.

Expanding on the research of Japanese scientists, the Cornell research team has already spliced a copy of the Tardigrade’s gene with an “embryonic” lab-grown human cell. The results are mind-blowing. After being exposed to radiation, the altered cell is 80 percent less damaged than a regular cell. In addition to radiation sensitivity, many more human characteristics could be corrected using gene editing. According to George Church, Professor of Genetics at Harvard, there are 40 human genes beneficial for space travel. From increasing the astronauts’ bone and muscle strength to combat microgravity to building their tolerance to low-levels of oxygen, gene editing could solve many concerns of space travel.

Before the first genetically altered human steps on Mars, years of research must go into making gene editing ethical, safe and effective. One thing is for certain: the desire to explore the universe is already in our DNA. Now, we must equip ourselves for the mission.

Works Cited:

Knapton, Sarah. “Human race is doomed if we do not colonise the Moon and Mars, says Stephen Hawking.” The Telegraph, 20 June, 2017

Pontin, Jason. “The Genetics (and Ethics) of Making Humans Fit for Mars.” Wired, 7 August, 2018

Dean, Cordelia. “The Tardigrade: Practically Invisible Indestructible ‘Water Bears.’” New York Times, 7 September, 2015

Schulze-Makuch, Dirk. “These Tiny Creatures Can Withstand an Astonishing 16,000 Gs.” Air & Space/Smithsonian, 6 January, 2017.

Bittel, Jason. “Tardigrade protein helps human DNA withstand radiation.” Nature, 20 September, 2016

Blakely, Rhys. “GM Astronauts will be engineered for Mars and beyond” The Times, 21 November, 2019

Pettit, Harry. “Astrobiologist argues that ‘gene-hacked’ humans should be created to settle on Mars” The Sun, 20 May, 2020.

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