Craig Venter to NASA: Think About Engineering Your Astronauts

11/3/10

What is the right genetic profile for an astronaut—someone who’s going to spend months living on the moon, or years traveling to an asteroid or Mars?

Craig Venter has an answer. The biologist told a group of scientists at NASA Ames on Saturday that NASA already does genetic selection when it picks astronauts. He just suggests that the space agency get even more systematic about its process.

“Inner ear changes could allow people to escape motion sickness,” Venter said. “(You could have genes for) bone regeneration, DNA repair from radiation, a strong immune system, small stature, high energy utilization, a low risk of genetic disease, smell receptors, a lack of hair, slow skin turnover, dental decay and so on. If people are traveling in space for their whole lives, they may want to engineer genetic traits for other purposes.”

Venter is currently a co-founder and CEO of San Diego’s Synthetic Genomics and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, a non-profit in Rockville, MD, that is working to discover and sequence as many genes as possible. He and his team developed a rapid technique for sequencing genes that beat the Human Genome Project’s approach to the problem in 2000.

He calls genetic engineering tools “the number-one wealth generator for the next century” and told the scientists that they give the world “the chance to completely change how we make everything, from food to fuel.”

NASA, meanwhile, is exploring the possibility of sending humans into space for long periods, and conditions in space can be problematic—everything from sweat to vomit to human waste has to be handled.

Venter described how rapid sequencing of genes could help NASA to better understand and cope with the closed environment of a space capsule, where each astronaut carries thousands of bacteria in his or her body.

“If you measure your blood stream after a meal, you will have … Next Page »

Deborah Gage is a technology writer based in the Bay Area. Follow @

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