Craig Venter in Space: Houston, We have a Problem.

Posted by Daniel Sharp April 5, 2012
Biopolitical Times
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In 1975, space technology devotees formed the L5 Society to promote their vision of space colonies. Its slogan betrays its techno-liberation sensibilities directly:  “The meek shall inherit the earth. The strong and the wise keep moving.”   

Fast-forward 35 years and the fantasies of space colonization are alive and well, not only in the minds of Trekkies and Singulatarian futurists, but also in the organizational culture at NASA.  While leaving earth behind and colonizing another planet will likely remain a pipe-dream, NASA’s latest tool to conquer the celestial frontier should give us pause.  

That tool is none other than synthetic biology, an extreme form of genetic engineering which boasts of its (mostly theoretical) ability to create novel artificial organisms from scratch out of synthesized biological parts. Back in 2010, in the wake of the creation of the first so-called synthetic cell, the NASA Ames Research Center began exploring applications of the emerging field.  Its Synthetic Biology Initiative is

designed to harness biology in reliable, robust, engineered systems to support NASA’s exploration and science missions, to improve life on Earth, and to help shape NASA’s future.

NASA is seeking to develop a host of potential applications – from biofuels for space flight and in situ resource utilization to life support, food, and medicine for scientists.  Every aspect of space travel and colonization, from getting to space, to setting up a colony, to sustaining astronauts, has a corresponding role for synthetic biology. Each merits some brief attention.

Space-craft biofuels are perhaps the most tragically ironic of these applications. While NASA may succeed in developing synthetic biofuels, it may also destroy the earth’s ecosystem in the process. As the ETC group notes,

Biofuels…have resulted in increased deforestation, hunger and land grabs, without reducing carbon emissions. Biotech companies are now pursuing 'synthetic biology' to create artificial microbes that can convert plant biomass into…fuels, chemicals and products. This is shortsighted and risky.

NASA’s vision of the human applications of synthetic biology is equally troubling: the creation of synthetic organisms to create synthetic food and medicine. NASA envisions a world where astronauts could travel to space with synthetic tool-kits:

Because organisms replicate themselves, future astronauts would only have to bring some spores and seeds and empty bioreactors, the organisms would do the rest of the work.

NASA’s initiative to fund these pharmaceutical and food-based applications of synthetic biology should give us pause.  If the space program has taught us anything, it’s that what starts in the space program trickles outward to society (think of memory foam, Velcro, and cordless tools). There’s a real danger that these extremely dangerous synthetic organisms will move from the space program to the social world in just the same way.

Most disturbingly, close affiliates of NASA’s synthetic biology initiative have suggested not only engineering organisms, but engineering astronauts as well. “Why not come up with a synthetic microbiome?” asked NASA partner and leading synthetic biologist Craig Venter in a keynote lecture at the NASA Ames Research Center.  Venter’s words display a disturbing mix of excitement, intrigue and grandiosity:  

Not too many things excite my imagination as trying to design organisms – even people – for long term space flight, and perhaps colonization of other worlds.

Venter’s enthusiasm about  reengineering humans for space flight is simply the latest in a series of disturbing comments by synthetic biologists about “enhancing” human beings. The fact that such rhetoric is making its way into the halls of one of the country’s most prestigious research institutions is a troubling sign.    

Synthetic biology involves piecing together “bio bricks” and DNA strands into artificial organisms, with many attendant dangers. Synthetic biology advocates seem to be up to something analogous on the level of scenario-building: the vision of space colonies populated by synthetically engineered humans cobbles together techno-utopianism, space escapism, and transhumanism into one chilling form of futurism.

Previously on Biopolitical Times: