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Lisa Nip: How Can We Engineer The Human Body To Survive On Mars ... And Beyond?

Dec 21, 2018

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Next Frontier.

About Lisa Nip's TED Talk

Earth may not be the only place in our solar system with life, says James Green. New data shows life might have existed on Mars, and could exist now. But what does that mean for us on Earth?

About Lisa Nip

Lisa Nip is a PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab's Molecular Machines group, where she focuses on synthetic biology and applies it to the challenges of long-term space travel.

Nip received her BA in biochemistry from Boston University. She has conducted research at UCSF's Douglas Lab and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard Medical School.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

OK. So Stephen Petranek says we are going to Mars, maybe in the next decade. And let's just say for a moment this is going to happen. And then you have the chance to help colonize it. This would mean spending eight months in a spacecraft before finally touching down on the red planet. You'd put on your space suit. You'd open up the hatch. And then you'd see the vast Martian desert stretched out right in front of you.

So what are you experiencing at that moment? Like, what's going on?

LISA NIP: Well, a lot of things you probably can't see yet.

RAZ: This is Lisa Nip. She's a researcher at MIT.

NIP: Probably a lot of very strong cosmic rays have passed through your body.

RAZ: Oh, that doesn't sound good.

NIP: Unfortunately, that will be the case for every planet that we visit that doesn't have an atmosphere like down on Earth. And so you're going to be bombarded every day with a lot of radiation. And over time, all that damage that you don't see will start to manifest itself as cancer. And you will just experience a very slow and painful death.

RAZ: OK (laughter).

NIP: Sorry. I don't mean to sound morbid.

RAZ: Lisa Nip has spent a lot of time thinking about, what will happen when humans start traveling across our solar system and beyond? What will happen to our bodies? And, unlike Stephen Petranek, Lisa has come to believe that future colonizers will not be able to change their environments enough to allow them to survive. She says that people will have to change themselves using synthetic biology. Lisa Nip picks up her idea from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

NIP: Our cosmic voyages will be fraught with dangers, both known and unknown. So far, we've been looking to this new piece of mechanical technology or that great next-generation robot as part of a lineup to ensure our species' safe passage in space. Wonderful as they are, I believe the time has come for us to complement these bulky electronic giants with what is known as synthetic biology.

It comes from molecular biology, which has given us antibiotics, vaccines and better ways to observe the physiological nuances of the human body. Using the tools of synthetic biology, we can now edit the genes of nearly any organism, microscopic or not, with incredible speed and fidelity. Given the limitations around man-made machines, synthetic biology will be a means for us to engineer not only our food, our fuel and our environment but also ourselves to compensate for our physical inadequacies and to ensure our survival in space.

To give you an example of how we can use synthetic biology for a space exploration, let us return to the Mars environment. What if Martian soil could actually support plant growth without using Earth-derived nutrients? How would we make our plants cold-tolerant? How do we make our plants drought-tolerant?

Well, it turns out we've already done things like this. By borrowing genes for anti-freeze protein from fish and genes for drought tolerance from other plants, like rice, and then stitching them into the plants that need them, we now have plants that can tolerate most droughts and freezes.

So we can use synthetic biology to bring highly engineered plants with us, but what else can we do? Unless we plan to stay holed up underground for the duration of our stay on every new planet, we must find better ways of protecting ourselves without needing to hide behind a wall of lead.

RAZ: When we come back in just a moment, Lisa Nip explains that the key to humans becoming a spacefaring species might be fungus. On our show today, ideas about The Next Frontier. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, ideas about The Next Frontier. And we were just hearing from MIT researcher Lisa Nip, who says that even with the latest technology, we humans just aren't built for living out in space. And so her solution? Synthetic biology. Genetically modifying ourselves to adapt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So how would we do that?

NIP: OK. So this is - this is very many leap years away. But have you heard of how, in Chernobyl - you know, the radioactive site now?

RAZ: Yeah. Yeah.

NIP: So scientists have discovered fungal species are able to actually survive on radiation - not only just live, but they survive.

RAZ: There's a fungus that survives on radiation in Chernobyl?

NIP: Yes.

RAZ: Wow.

NIP: What's interesting is that, when they're exposed to radiation, they have melanin that actually generates electricity. And obviously, to translate that into an entire human being is going to be many, many steps away. But if we still have funding for science, and are OK with it as a species, that's an avenue that will and can be explored.

RAZ: Essentially, a human that would need and require radiation to live and thrive?

NIP: Correct.

RAZ: Which is what Mars is filled with.

NIP: (Laughter) Yes, exactly. And so you can imagine that a human being that just feeds off radiation probably won't need to eat anymore.

RAZ: But that just sounds so - so out there. Like, how would that work? How would scientists go about figuring out how to inject people with the powers of fungus?

NIP: Right. So it's not easy. But the radio-tolerant fungi, we know that they survive with melanin. And conveniently, humans also have melanin, and that's what's in our skin that makes us tan, brown. And the way to go about actually testing it would obviously start in a dish, in a lab, and to see whether the fungal version would actually survive conversion to a mammalian version. And after finding the similarities, we start coming in with our molecular scalpels and tweaking until we find something that is able to survive on its own and also be able to withstand any kind of immuno rejection from the human body.

RAZ: I mean, it's not - I guess it's not that crazy to have this conversation. Like, if you and me were like an ocean or sea-faring creature several million years ago, and we all had a conference, and one of us piped up and said, hey, we have to figure out how to live on the land. You know, we're going to have to figure out how to breathe differently and, you know, grow different parts of our bodies. Like, you know, all the other tadpoles or whatever would say, you're nuts. You're crazy. But look at us now.

NIP: (Laughter).

RAZ: Right? Here we are. Here we are walking on two legs on planet Earth.

NIP: Yeah. I think what you're pointing out to is that natural evolution has allowed organisms to morph in ways that make changes so drastic that you wouldn't have expected a connection.

RAZ: What is the timeline we're talking about here? Are we talking about, like, hundreds of years, thousands of years?

NIP: It's possibly thousands of years away. But I think we're starting to get our feet wet and being able to handle the biological tools to know when and where to make changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

NIP: Every day, the human body evolves by accidental mutations that equally, accidentally allow certain humans to persevere in dismal situations. But such evolution requires two things that we may not always have, and they are death and time. We may not always have the time necessary for the natural evolution of extra functions for survival on non-Earth planets.

We're living in what E.O. Wilson has termed the age of gene circumvention, during which we remedy our genetic defects like cystic fibrosis or muscular dystrophy with temporary external supplements. But with every passing day, we approach the age of volitional evolution, a time during which we, as a species, will have the capacity to decide, for ourselves, our own genetic destiny. Augmenting the human body with new abilities is no longer a question of how but of when.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: So there was a recent report in China, where a scientist claimed to have genetically engineered a human baby to be resistant to AIDS.

NIP: Twins, in fact. We, as a scientific community, kind of balk at this because it was done without considering the moral and ethical consequences.

RAZ: Right.

NIP: For us to actually reach any kind of consensus on the editing of humans requires a greater amount of scientific education worldwide, so that everybody is informed before we have a discussion. I think the way that was done, it just doesn't sit well with people.

RAZ: I mean, so what you're saying is that if humans want to go to Mars, we have to come to some kind of consensus about gene editing around human synthetic biology because that's the only way we're going to survive there long term?

NIP: Yes. That's exactly right. If you - if we, as a species, decide that we intend to stay there for hundreds of years, and you want to do that without any changes to the human body, then you'll have to accept that there is a certain number of deaths that will happen. People will die, and you will have to say that they died because we wanted to keep them as human as possible. But if you want them to survive, I think the mind needs to accept that the human body is malleable, and that it can change, and that's OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

NIP: Mars is a destination, but it will not be our last. Our path to the stars will be rife with trials that will bring us to question not only who we are but where we will be going. The answers will lie in our choice to use or abandon the technology that we have gleaned from life itself. And it will define us for the remainder of our term in this universe. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Lisa Nip is a researcher at MIT's Media Lab. You can see her full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.