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 500 chemicals in your blood stream and only 50 percent are from human metabolism,” he said. “Thirty percent are from species you meet during a meal, and 10 percent are bacterial metabolites. We have no idea what role the latter play in human physiology…so many gene functions are unknown that empirical science is going to be a big part of this field for a long time to come.”

Some of the scientists had concerns about Venter’s ideas. What if you accidentally create a pathogen, one asked? “We’re designing everything to not survive outside the lab when it’s produced,” Venter replied.

But others were enthusiastic. “What will be the first application of synthetic biology on NASA’s missions?” another asked.

“How much money have you got?” Venter replied, laughing. “Without knowing the level of effort, it’s impossible to answer that, but we can change the shape of everything NASA does if there’s the commitment to do it.”

Ethics are a stumbling block, though, Venter acknowledged in response to another question on whether he would conduct certain experiments in space that he wouldn’t do on Earth. “Human engineering is one of those things we all agree that you can’t do, because you can’t do human experimentation. Making that leap from genetic selection to genetic engineering will be a very complex one for society to make – if it ever does. I don’t think doing it in space makes it any easier.”

In an interview after the meeting, NASA Ames director Pete Worden said NASA has no relationship with Venter, and isn’t planning one at this time. He said the purpose of the meeting—which was a combined meeting of NASA’s space settlement group and its synthetic biology group—was to get people together who don’t normally talk to each other to brainstorm and exchange ideas.

Scientists who think of new genetic experiments as a result of the meeting are free to submit proposals to NASA’s various directorates for approval, Worden said.

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

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