An exhibition at the Science Gallery Dublin explores how humans are preparing to live in the harsh conditions of outer space and how microorganisms might help us do so. Space traveling is closer than many of us think. NASA has plans to send humans to Mars in the 2030s, and Elon Musk seems to have taken on a personal challenge of establishing a city on the red planet. He says the Martian city should reach a million inhabitants within 40 to 100 years.
However, the human body is not adapted to life in space. In zero gravity, muscles lose force, bones lose density, vision becomes blurry, and the immune system grows weaker. A study that sent astronaut Scott Kelly to space for a year showed that the regulation of his DNA but not its actual sequence changed as compared to his twin brother, who stayed on Earth.
Life In Space
One of the first steps to prepare for life in space is studying what awaits us out there. Artist and DIY biologist Andy Gracie explore the boundaries of life in space through a series of experiments and devices designed specifically for the study of how different forms of life adapt to the extreme conditions found in space.
The first Deep Data prototype built by Gracie focused on studying magnetic fields in tardigrades. Also known as water bears, these microscopic animals are known for their ability to live in the toughest environments, including outer space.
Gravity In Space
Gracie’s most recent prototype draws from data on exoplanets that have relatively similar conditions to Earth. Based on calculations of the gravity found on these exoplanets, the device can replicate it by controlling the speed at which cultures of nematode worms spin.
This type of worms were the only survivors when the Columbia shuttle disintegrated while returning to Earth, killing the seven astronauts on board. Gracie explores this concept in Drosophila tetanus, a project in which, through selective breeding, the artist aims to develop a new species of fruit fly that can live on Saturn’s moon Titan.
On Titan, the temperature drops to around -180ºC, the atmospheric pressure is 1.5 times that of Earth, the air is made of nitrogen and ammonia, and rivers and seas are made of methane. With the fruit fly as a metaphor for humans, Gracie explores not only our ability to control life but the ethics behind artificial selection and eugenics.
Questions that are particularly relevant with the advances of gene editing tools such as CRISPR-Cas9, which can do the work of generations of breeding in a single experiment, are tested in humans.