"Maybe we will colonize other worlds not with astronauts in space suits, but with bacteria," said Steltzner at the event. "Those considerations seem beautiful, fantastic."Beautiful, fantastic, and totally bonkers. Interest piqued, I called up Ruvkun—who along with George Church, his colleague at Harvard Medical School's genetics department, pioneered the DNA space travel concept—to find out if the idea is just futurist hubris or actually feasible. The short answer is, it's a little of both.
"Once you propose terraforming, you might as well propose sending bacteria with human sequences. That's not that crazy."
Ruvkun told me that it is possible to encode segments of human DNA in bacteria and have it survive the trip to other planets. "Like using bacteria like computer memory," he said. 'It's sort of like an iPod that you send to another planet. And the bacteria can store information very densely."It's an extension of the idea to engineer bacteria to send into space to terraform Mars. These microbial pioneers would stimulate the evolution of a new biosphere, the theory goes, providing oxygen and food and the environment that Earthling settlers would need to live on the red planet."Once you propose terraforming, you might as well propose sending bacteria with human sequences," said Ruvkun. "That's not that crazy."Printing human organs is on the frontier, but printing a human—or growing one from DNA—is still only theoreticalWhat is potentially crazy, however, is the plan to reassemble the sequence on the other side. At this point, that's beyond what's we're capable of. "We don't have any ability to sort of reassemble a human from DNA," said Ruvkun.But it's also not entirely outside the realm of possibility. As genetic engineering, cloning, and bioprinting technology advances, it's providing a lot of food for the imagination. If you put a 100th of a human genome into bacteria, Ruvkun said, you'd have to assemble 100 human segments, Ruvkun said. That seems doable.
The printing humans concept is not mine, but belongs to Ruvkun, Church and others Havard Med Dept of Genetics. They think deep and forward.
— Adam Steltzner (@steltzner) May 17, 2014
It sounds far-fetched, but it's an area of biotech geneticists are currently exploring. Being able to store and transmit genetic code the same as any other kind of data is the principle behind the "life printing" gadget being developed by biologist Craig Venter, the US biologist that's famous for helping map the human genome and creating the first synthetic life.Venter is developing a "digital biological converter" device that can transport a digital DNA file, at the speed of light, and recreate the original lifeform in the new location from that data. He calls it biological teleportation, but it's more like a cosmic fax.Venter believes the process could be used to "print" alien life, if there is any, here on Earth. If, say, the Mars rover discovers microbes on the planet, it could beam back digital copies of the genomes to sequence here on Earth. There's a prototype already, which unsurprisingly has attracted the support of NASA and DARPA.So if we believe it's possible to print a Martian organism on Earth, could it work the other way around? At this point, Venter's experiment is only tackling life-printing at the individual gene level, but single-celled organisms like bacteria are next in line. "More complex creatures," the New York Times reported, "earthly or Martian, will probably never be possible."Probably not. But in Ruvkun's view, this method of "human" space exploration is worth thinking about, if for no other reason than it's the least unlikely of all the unlikely schemes to colonize the cosmos.If we're going to talk about interplanetary settlements anyway, we might as well discuss the strategies that aren't definitely scientifically impossible, he reasoned. We know which laws of physics are standing in the way of transporting people lightyears through the universe, but there aren't obvious laws of nature preventing us from sending DNA-encoded organisms to propagate the species on other planets."This is completely speculative," Steltzner said at the end of our interview. "But it doesn't require you moving faster than the speed of light, and it doesn't require infinite amounts of energy."
If we believe it's possible to print a Martian organism on Earth, could it work the other way around?