Should Science Give Astronauts Genetic Superpowers for Space Travel?

An astronaut peers through a portal in outer space.

(© Paopano/Adobe)

What if people could just survive on sunlight like plants?

The admittedly outlandish question occurred to me after reading about how climate change will exacerbate drought, flooding, and worldwide food shortages. Many of these problems could be eliminated if human photosynthesis were possible. Had anyone ever tried it?

Extreme space travel exists at an ethically unique spot that makes human experimentation much more palatable.

I emailed Sidney Pierce, professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of South Florida, who studies a type of sea slug, Elysia chlorotica, that eats photosynthetic algae, incorporating the algae's key cell structure into itself. It's still a mystery how exactly a slug can operate the part of the cell that converts sunlight into energy, which requires proteins made by genes to function, but the upshot is that the slugs can (and do) live on sunlight in-between feedings.

Pierce says he gets questions about human photosynthesis a couple of times a year, but it almost certainly wouldn't be worth it to try to develop the process in a human. "A high-metabolic rate, large animal like a human could probably not survive on photosynthesis," he wrote to me in an email. "The main reason is a lack of surface area. They would either have to grow leaves or pull a trailer covered with them."

In short: Plants have already exploited the best tricks for subsisting on photosynthesis, and unless we want to look and act like plants, we won't have much success ourselves. Not that it stopped Pierce from trying to develop human photosynthesis technology anyway: "I even tried to sell it to the Navy back in the day," he told me. "Imagine photosynthetic SEALS."

It turns out, however, that while no one is actively trying to create photosynthetic humans, scientists are considering the ways humans might need to change to adapt to future environments, either here on the rapidly changing Earth or on another planet. Rice University biologist Scott Solomon has written an entire book, Future Humans, in which he explores the environmental pressures that are likely to influence human evolution from this point forward. On Earth, Solomon says, infectious disease will remain a major driver of change. As for Mars, the big two are lower gravity and radiation, the latter of which bombards the Martian surface constantly because the planet has no magnetosphere.

Although he considers this example "pretty out there," Solomon says one possible solution to Mars' magnetic assault could leave humans not photosynthetic green, but orange, thanks to pigments called carotenoids that are responsible for the bright hues of pumpkins and carrots.

"Carotenoids protect against radiation," he says. "Usually only plants and microbes can produce carotenoids, but there's at least one kind of insect, a particular type of aphid, that somehow acquired the gene for making carotenoids from a fungus. We don't exactly know how that happened, but now they're orange... I view that as an example of, hey, maybe humans on Mars will evolve new kinds of pigmentation that will protect us from the radiation there."

We could wait for an orange human-producing genetic variation to occur naturally, or with new gene editing techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, we could just directly give astronauts genetic advantages such as carotenoid-producing skin. This may not be as far-off as it sounds: Extreme space travel exists at an ethically unique spot that makes human experimentation much more palatable. If an astronaut already plans to subject herself to the enormous experiment of traveling to, and maybe living out her days on, a dangerous and faraway planet, do we have any obligation to provide all the protection we can?

Probably the most vocal person trying to figure out what genetic protections might help astronauts is Cornell geneticist Chris Mason. His lab has outlined a 10-phase, 500-year plan for human survival, starting with the comparatively modest goal of establishing which human genes are not amenable to change and should be marked with a "Do not disturb" sign.

To be clear, Mason is not actually modifying human beings. Instead, his lab has studied genes in radiation-resistant bacteria, such as the Deinococcus genus. They've expressed proteins called DSUP from tardigrades, tiny water bears that can survive in space, in human cells. They've looked into p53, a gene that is overexpressed in elephants and seems to protect them from cancer. They also developed a protocol to work on the NASA twin study comparing astronauts Scott Kelly, who spent a year aboard the International Space Station, and his brother Mark, who did not, to find out what effects space tends to have on genes in the first place.

In a talk he gave in December, Mason reported that 8.7 percent of Scott Kelly's genes—mostly those associated with immune function, DNA repair, and bone formation—did not return to normal after the astronaut had been home for six months. "Some of these space genes, we could engineer them, activate them, have them be hyperactive when you go to space," he said in that same talk. "When we think about having the hubris to go to a faraway seems like an almost impossible idea….but I really like people and I want us to survive for a long time, and this is the first step on the stairwell to survive out of the solar system."

What is the most important ability we could give our future selves through science?

There are others performing studies to figure out what capabilities we might bestow on the future-proof superhuman, but none of them are quite as extreme as photosynthesis (although all of them are useful). At Harvard, geneticist George Church wants to engineer cells to be resistant to viruses, such as the common cold and HIV. At Columbia, synthetic biologist Harris Wang is addressing self-sufficient humans more directly—trying to spur kidney cells to produce amino acids that are normally only available from diet.

But perhaps Future Humans author Scott Solomon has the most radical idea. I asked him a version of the classic What would be your superhero power? question: What does he see as the most important ability we could give our future selves through science?

"The empathy gene," he said. "The ability to put yourself in someone else's shoes and see the world as they see it. I think it would solve a lot of our problems."

Jacqueline Detwiler-George
Jacqueline Detwiler is the former articles editor at Popular Mechanics and former host of The Most Useful Podcast Ever. She writes about science, adventure, travel, and technology. For stories, she has embedded with high school students in Indianapolis, jumped out of a plane with a member of the Red Bull Air Force, and travelled the country searching for the cure for cancer. Most recently, she trailed the Baltimore Police Department's Crime Scene Investigation team for a book for Simon & Schuster's Masters at Work series. It will be published in April, 2021.
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