Genetic Engineering Of Plants Urged To Aid In Space Travel

Michael Woods
February 19, 2000
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Scientists say the colonization of Mars could be accelerated if they can breed a new generation of trees that grow their own protective "greenhouses."

Freeman Dyson, a renowned physicist at Princeton University's Institute for Advanced Physics, proposes that a government-university research program be launched to genetically engineer such plants. He spoke yesterday at the national meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"Turtles grow their own shell," Dyson said. "Polar bears grow fur to survive in the cold. Growing protective coverings that permit life in harsh environments is something animals are very good at. Plants haven't learned the trick yet. Maybe gene transfer can help them out."

Dyson said that breeding such plants would solve the problem of providing a suitable human habitat and an ample supply of food and other material for space colonists. Instead of transporting air-tight domes and other essentials from Earth - at enormous cost - space colonists would bring the new generation of saplings instead.

"Forests would build huge greenhouses over their heads," said Dyson, describing how groups of greenhouses would grow together to form extended habitats for people, food crops, and domestic animals. The greenhouses would consist of a tough, transparent skin that would keep the enclosed space warm as heat from the sun enters and is trapped inside. The skin would conserve oxygen that trees and other plants produce during photosynthesis. It also would conserve precious water vapor and other moisture.

A hare-brained idea? Not in the view of National Aeronautics and Space Administration scientists, who agreed that the habitat problem is a major barrier to colonization of space.

"We actually have a very active program in plant biotechnology," said Kathie Olsen, NASA's chief scientist. "I can see the images in Dr. Dyson's vision."

Dr. Yoji Kondo, an expert on human space travel at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, suggested that plants genetically modified to thrive on other worlds will become a reality.

Olsen said NASA has by no means ruled out the possibility of genetically modifying astronauts, as well, to cope better with the stresses of long-duration space flight. It would involve inserting genes that protect against major health problems associated with low-gravity conditions in space.

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