Reviewed by: Peter Spasov
Title: The Next 500 Years: Engineering Life to Reach New Worlds
Author: Christopher E. Mason
NSS Amazon link for this book
Format: Hardcover, Kindle
Publisher: The MIT Press
Date: April 2021
Retail Price: $29.95/$18.99
According to Christopher Mason, we have a moral duty to engineer life because we are the only extinction-aware species—so far. Now, Mason, a professor of genomics and principal investigator for numerous NASA missions, shows us how.
Mason begins with an astronaut physiology study, during which Scott Kelly inhabited the ISS for a year while his twin brother, Mark, remained on Earth. Next, the author asks us to visualize the future and our relationship with other species, and how we now have the knowledge and tools to do so.
Subsequent chapters cover a ten phase program spanning 2010 to 2500, the first beginning with an overview of genomics, including significant facts relevant to space travel. For example, Himalayan Sherpas are already better adapted to living at higher altitudes. And during 2015, a researcher demonstrated sequencing DNA in zero gravity.
By the mid-2030s, ideally, we will be able to get human boots on Mars. Hence the preliminary engineering of genomes might include additional radiation resilience, possibly using genes from elephants and/or tardigrades (colloquially known as water bears). Here Mason illustrates the basics of gene editing using CRISPR, an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. Plus there are ways and means to induce enzymes to work in our favor. This section also covers ethical and other issues.
A section describes the conditions astronauts may encounter and provides a detailed genetic framework for radiation protection. And with a new kind of CRISPR delivery system using nanocapsules, one could possibly engineer organisms to survive the Martian environment.
The next phase explores various possibilities such as giving humans the ability to photosynthesize, as plants already do. With sufficient modification, such a human could sit under sunlight as their lunch break instead of eating. Mason also examines exowombs as possibilities for reproduction. Could this be the basis for what science fiction has already imagined: the sending of eggs and sperm in small spacecraft to settle planets in distant stellar systems?
By 2150 synthetic biology should advance, for instance, to reduce the high frequency of skin rashes and overall skin hypersensitivity currently experienced by astronauts in space. Such advances may also create new forms of DNA and combat space-based bacteria. Our current experience with bacteria in the ISS has shown increased virulence and greater resistance to antibiotics. Further, this biotechnology can add enhancements such as a human ability to see infrared light, a useful feature in the outer solar system.
With additional tweaking, people could internally synthesize more amino acids and other essential molecules, such as vitamin C, thus reducing the need for certain food sources. However, modifying our biochemical pathways can have detrimental consequences when environmental conditions change. Mason writes: As with anything in life, the question will eventually come down to: “What is lost for a specific gain?”
By 2250, people may be sending ships to exoplanets. Hence suitable biotechnologies include hibernation to alleviate life-support resources and crew stress. Without hibernation, one must consider the ethical considerations of using generation ships to reach the stars. Additionally, extensive production of food and medication would be a necessity. Currently, astronauts use twenty three types of medication, on average.
Mason discusses species modification such as the directed evolution of a wild fox species to become tamer like dogs. As well, modifications to some ligaments attached to the skull can better adapt humans to different gravity conditions as required. Topics range from artificial intelligence to moral philosophy. As Mason notes, one philosopher argues that some human meat eaters are practising racism at the species level.
When humans venture to other stars, they will need to plan for trade and autonomy between systems. The current drive to maximize profits over the short term with cheap devices must instead shift to maximizing over the long-term to produce durable products capable of handling extremes across multiple planets. Next-day shipping is impossible, except by 3D printing, possibly with reclaimable bio-based materials.
Next, the author further promotes humans as a guardian species. Then he describes conditions of the far future, such as slower Earth rotation. Alas, Mason’s discussion of the universe’s expansion contains one error that I noted.
Although generally comprehendible, this book may, in some sections, cause some readers to struggle with ‘nome’ words such as transcriptome, proteome, epigenome, and epitranscriptome. The overall tone is highly optimistic and would appeal to the “just do it” sentiment. Although Mason mentions ethics periodically, he might warn more against dystopian possibilities such as a dictator-engineered compliant population, or the possible influence of a rebellious biohacker culture.
The Next 500 Years is Mason’s first book, one containing several illustrations, extensive references and index. This comprehensive work will definitely appeal to those interested in becoming a spacefaring society. Instead of focusing on space-technology hardware, Mason shows us how to change those who will settle space.
© 2021 Peter Spasov
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