Thursday, January 28, 2016

Our Future In Space: Of Biology, Physics, and A Whole Lot of Different Stuff Thrown In


Yes, I know that's a very old quote, and perhaps some of you might see it as hackneyed or cliched. But all that is fine, because I'm about to discuss some pretty serious stuff with you guys here. In the next decade, Mars One will be sending manned missions to the Red Planet. No, I'm not a PR guy for Mars One, but neither do I believe that it is a scam of any sorts, any more than the moon landing was purportedly a hoax. Donations only fund their further development of resources, not get them a fancy Rolex from your favourite watch shop. Crowdfunding and not-for-profit anyone? Anyway, the reason I mention Mars One is that it came up in a conversation with a friend. He said, in a very cynical tone, that he pities those astronauts. Well, for my part, I believe they deserve a bit of respect for this intrepid venture, leaving behind all creature comforts at planet Earth, never to return again. Y'all might not know this, but I have a bit of a fascination with space travel, in particular space colonization. I was wondering how I could possibly do anything with this fancy, being a biotech student and all. It just so happens that one fine day, a guest speaker at our college delivered a lecture on diabetic retinopathy, and in particular, a pathway with a hitherto unspellable name (sounds like kinunirin) caught my attention. This pathway is supposedly associated with generation of free radicals as well as apoptosis. If we can inhibit this pathway, or destroy any potential free radicals, we can potentially extend human lifespan. Now to put things in perspective, some points you might consider.

Role of a biotechnologist/astrobiologist

It is often said that doctors and people involved in the life sciences carry the biggest burden on their heads, i.e., that to help sustain healthy human life. If a medical procedure were to be developed that put astronauts in suspended animation for days or even months on end, while drugs and biomedical devices leech the body of all toxins, free radicals, extra adipose tissue, etc. would be delivered continuously to these astronauts, they probably wouldn't be grandpas by the time they arrive on an exoplanet. The role of us biotechnologists is to work with doctors to develop such a procedure by the turn of the decade, and pass on the knowledge to future crew members. This would eliminate the need for generation ships and a struggle with your identity.

Role of a physicist

So many theories have been proposed regarding the universe, each as amazing as the other. However, the physicist's job here is not to formulate theories, but to develop methods of harnessing minerals from asteroids and other celestial bodies that may well lie in our journey to our next home, as well to develop a clean and renewable fuel. If this can be done, most of the problems faced by manned missions can be solved. To solve the issue of zero gravity, special shoes can be developed, that are interfaced to powerful electromagnets docked below the main ship.

Food  

In order to better adapt to changing living conditions, astronauts' diet will be more plant-based than ever. That means, we'll have to say goodbye to a lot of stuff, including ruminant cheese. However, with major advancements in biotechnology, it may be possible to hydroponically grow biofortified plants with some of the characteristics of our contemporary food. Soybean for example, can be engineered so that the soymilk becomes more fit for production of butter and cheese. A good alternative to your everyday milk sausage would be tofu, mashed potatoes, baked beans, and toast. Now don't get me wrong. I'm not a vegan advocate. Hell, I can't imagine life without chicken. However, the benefits of raising poultry and livestock onboard a space craft, are far outweighed by all the associated diseases, and the fact that such a thing is not profitable from a utilitarian standpoint. Superfoods and nutritional supplements will become the norm, and it will be the prerogative of microbiologists to carefully culture probiotic organisms.

These are just some of the ideas in my head for a potential mission to say, Europa. More on this on a later post. Cheerio!


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