Genetic biotechnology is usually discussed in the context of current and emerging applications here on Earth, and rightly so, since we still live exclusively in our planetary cradle. But as humanity looks outward, we ponder what kind of life we ought to take with us to support outposts and eventually colonies off the Earth.
While the International Space Station (ISS) and the various spacecraft that ferry astronauts on short bouts through space depend on consumables brought up from Earth to maintain life support, this approach will not be practical for extensive lunar missions, much less long term occupation of more distant sites. If we’re to build permanent bases, and eventually colonies, on the Moon, Mars, asteroids, moons of outer planets or in free space, we’ll need recycling life support systems. This means air, water, and food replenished through microorganisms and plants, and it’s not a new idea.
Space exploration enthusiasts have been talking about it for decades, and it’s the most obvious application of microorganisms and plants transplanted from Earth. What is new, however, is the prospect of a comprehensive approach to develop and apply synthetic biology for a wide range of off-Earth outpost and colonization applications.
To this end, considering human outposts on the Moon and Mars, a recently
from scientists based at NASA Ames Research Center and the University of California at Berkeley examines the potential of genetic technology, not only to achieve biologically-based life support systems, but also to facilitate other activities that must be sustained on colony worlds. Not discussed as often with biotechnology and space exploration in the same conversation, these other activities include generation of rocket propellant, synthesis of polymers, and production of pharmaceuticals. Together with the life support system, they paint a picture of the beckoning era of space activity that puts synthetic biology at center stage.
Although written specifically in the context of lunar and Martian outposts, the proposed biologically based technical infrastructure is just as applicable to a colony on less frequently discussed worlds, such as the dwarf planet Ceres or an outer planet moon, or to a colony that orbits in the Earth moon system, orbits Venus, Mars, or an outer planet, or makes its own orbit around the Sun (known as a free space colony), rather than being located on a celestial body.