Update 11 October: A spokesperson from NASA told IFLScience: “NASA is working on research and technology developments to minimize acute and long-term crew health risks related to deep space exploration, including missions to Mars. The agency has identified 30 areas of human spaceflight risks, including space radiation exposure, which will be controlled by a NASA standard to protect crew health and safety.
"The agency is not working on (and has no plans to do so) research related to changing existing genetic sequence or introducing new genetic material to an astronaut’s DNA for flight as previously reported. NASA strictly follows regulations currently in place to protect genetic information and manipulation. Ongoing radiation research includes looking at pharmaceuticals and cellular mechanisms, which would repair damage to the chromosomes that might take place due to galactic cosmic radiation. Future research may examine the possibility of using medications to alter existing dormant or under-expressed genes (gene expression) to mitigate the effects of radiation.”
Our original article is below.
A report in The Times today suggests that NASA is looking at how to manipulate the DNA of astronauts when it sends them to Mars.
The idea is apparently to protect them from cosmic radiation. This high-energy radiation, which comes mostly from outside our Solar System, can cause health issues like an increased risk of cancer and damage to the central nervous system.
Douglas Terrier, NASA’s Acting Chief Technologist, said however that NASA was already looking at ways to mitigate these effects. While shielding spacecraft perhaps with water or magnetic fields has been touted before, gene manipulation is quite new.
“We’re looking at a range of things,” Terrier told The Times. “From drug therapies, and those seem to be quite promising, to more extreme things like epigenetic modification – I think those have a lot of ethical consequences so they’re still in the experimental thought stages – all the way to manipulation.”
Now, actually finding this research has proved rather tricky. There is little available NASA documentation on using gene manipulation to protect against cosmic rays. We’ve asked NASA for any information on this subject.
We do know, though, that cosmic rays are a problem. A NASA research paper from 1993 discusses using a “storm shelter” to protect astronauts. Other proposals include using water inside the walls of spacecraft or creating a powerful magnetic field to deflect incoming radiation.
There has been a fair amount of research done in space on DNA too. Last year, for example, NASA astronaut Kate Rubins successfully sequenced DNA in space for the first time. Other research has found that the building blocks of DNA can be made in space.
Travelling to Mars will come with a fair few risks. Aside from cosmic rays, there will be solar storms to deal with, and a lack of microbial diversity. It would make sense that NASA is researching some potential solutions, then.
Quite what it means to do with gene manipulation, we don’t know. Given that its goal has recently been switched from Mars to the Moon anyway, maybe we won’t find out for quite a while.
[H/T: The Times]