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Humans may have to modify their DNA to survive hostile conditions on Mars, say experts

The subject is controversial as it raises a lot of ethical concerns. Researchers will have to spend decades studying the effects of gene editing before applying it to humans, they say.
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Researchers are taking a leaf out of science fiction books to help humans colonize Mars. Future explorers may need to have their DNA modified to make the Red Planet their home, experts suggested. The idea comes as NASA eyes an ambitious goal: reaching our neighboring planet by 2030. But Mars is inhospitable and explorers will have to brave harmful radiation and the sub-zero temperatures. They also could lose muscles and face a bunch of other problems. "Human bodies are optimized for life on Earth, and ill-equipped for environments like those we will encounter on Mars," experts said.

So how can humans settle down in a region as hostile as the Red Planet? Recently, experts discussed the topic at length during a webinar hosted by the New York Academy of Sciences called "Alienating Mars: Challenges of Space Colonization." One problem is that Mars cannot shield humans from harmful radiation. Humans would fry upon arriving on the planet, Christopher Mason, a geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine, the medical school of Cornell University, reportedly said during the discussions. "There, it would be certain death unless you did something, including every kind of shielding you could possibly provide," he added.

They think we can take a cue from water bears or Tardigrade. These tiny near-microscopic animals are unkillable even at extremes of situations. Even temperatures that are as cold as minus 328 degrees Fahrenheit or as hot as more than 300 degrees F cannot take them down.  What is more, they can withstand radiation and even the vacuum of space - without requiring any help.

These tiny near-microscopic animals are unkillable.(Getty Images)

To set up base, scientists think inserting tardigrade DNA into humans may help.  Advanced technologies "may need to come into play if people want to live and work and thrive, and establish their family, and stay on Mars," Kennda Lynch, an astrobiologist and geomicrobiologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, reportedly said. "That's when these kinds of technologies might be critical or necessary," she added.

Inserting Tardigrade genes holds promise

Researchers have inserted tardigrade genes into human cells grown in labs using gene-editing technology. These modified cells did a better job resisting radiation than unmodified cells, Mason said.

But the subject is controversial as it raises a lot of ethical concerns. Mason earlier told researches will have to spend decades studying the effects of gene editing before applying it to humans. "And are we maybe ethically bound to do so?" he said during the webinar. "I think if it's a long enough mission, you might have to do something, assuming it's safe, which we can't say yet."

Other researches are looking at means to terraform Mars: transforming the planet into a more hospitable world. But other experts warn against such a measure as we might wipe out Mars' native ecosystem, considering that the planet hosted life in the past.

"And how can we do that if we go and change the planet before we go and find out if life actually was living there?" Lynch from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, said.