Chris Mason interview: Let’s tweak human DNA for life on other planets


To become an interplanetary species, we may have to genetically engineer ourselves to be more resilient, says geneticist Chris Mason. He has a 500-year plan for life away from Earth


14 July 2021

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Rocio Montaya

CHRIS MASON likes to think about the future. He isn’t dreaming about a summer holiday, or even planning his retirement. His thoughts extend much further – to the point where Earth is no longer a suitable home for humans.

Alarmed at the prospect, Mason has sketched out a plan of action in the form of his book The Next 500 Years: Engineering life to reach new worlds. It covers some of the usual ground: how we will first establish bases on the moon and Mars, and later on the solar system’s outer moons. Eventually, we will make an epic trip to a planet orbiting a different star.

What sets Mason’s ideas apart, however, is that he realises that human bodies aren’t well suited for life away from Earth, what with the radiation, toxic gases and so on. His programme for expansion comes with a detailed blueprint for the genetic improvements we will need to make to ourselves to boost our resilience off-world.

Mason is well placed to write such a plan. A geneticist at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York, he was a principal investigator on the NASA twin study, our most thorough look yet at what happens to the human body in space. The research focused on astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent nearly a year in orbit starting in 2015, and his identical twin, Mark, who remained on Earth for that period.

Mason is also actively exploring how to genetically modify human cells to help make them more resilient in space. Although his plan spans 500 years, he is laying the groundwork already.

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