Radiation is not always a bad thing. The sun after all is the ultimate energy source for life on Earth, without which the Earth would be a cold lifeless ball. But some forms of radiation are not helpful at keeping us alive, and can be downright dangerous. As we consider expanding our frontiers to new worlds, and leaving the safe confines of Earth's magnetic field, we will be confronted with far more radiation than we have evolved to manage. With the advance of genetic engineering techniques like CRISPR, we can and should start asking tough questions about changing our own DNA. This is why some people have begun to seriously consider what a future human might look like for space exploration. In LikoLab's Life-Centered Podcast, I always ask my interviewees:
"What if you could insert any gene or trait from another organism into humans, what would it be and why?"
The answers are often abstract, but in the last few weeks two real possibilities have popped up that might hold clues to what humans will look like when we head to the stars.
Nano-Melanin Spheres from Fungi
One compelling concept was reported out of the Mars City Design Workshop where participants described the possibilities of engineering human tissue to super express melanin in a similar fashion to fungi that can withstand radiation at Chernobyl. The fungi that withstand intense radiation have been found to have nano spheres of melanin (which is found throughout organisms) where the layers of melanin are the right shape to redirect and capture different forms of damaging radiation. This super-melanin human would not only be resistant to radiation but also people who expressed this trick would have black bones, tissue, hair, and even black irises.
Tardigrade Dsup Protein
Over expressing melanin nano-spheres is just the beginning. We can look to other extreme organisms to find unique characteristics. One of the toughest organisms known is the tardigrade. This little guy lives to eat moss cells, and is only visible with a magnifying lens, but don't let his size fool you. The tardigrade can withstand decades without water, and be exposed to extreme radiation without missing a beat. Scientists just recently published a paper detailing a new class of proteins called Dsup that appear to help the tardigrade achieve its x-ray defense mechanisms. Further, they actually then went the next step and engineered human cells (in a petri dish) to express this protein and found that the human cells could suppress x-ray damage by up to 40% more than when compared to normal cells. I wonder if someone with this new gene will have a hankering for tasty moss?
- Genetic Engineering Will Change Everything Forever - CRISPR
- Tardigrade Protein Helps Human DNA Withstand Radiation
- Watch Out, Mars: City Planners Are Coming For You
- Organisms Capture Radiation - Black Fungi
- Mars City Foundation