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.
That’s just what we know from astronauts aboard the international space station. But as we start traveling to other planets, our bodies will also struggle with the extreme conditions we find in most of them.
One of the first steps to prepare for life in space is studying what awaits us out there. Artist and DIY biologist Andy Gracie explores 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.
Gracie’s Deep Data project is based on data gathered by deep space probes such as the Martian rover, the Pioneer probes in Jupiter, New Horizons in Pluto, or the Kepler spacecraft searching for exoplanets outside the Solar System. This data is then used to recreate the conditions found in outer space in the lab, testing whether terrestrial forms of life, such as bacteria, worms or tardigrades, are able to survive.
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.
By placing magnets within the petri dish, Gracie recreates the magnetic fields detected by the Voyager space probes in planets like Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, as well as their satellites. The reactions of the tardigrades to shifting magnetic fields can be seen in real time through a live video feed.
A second Deep Data prototype replicates the light conditions of the Moon, Venus or Mars to study its influence in plants. In particular, Gracie uses plants with a mutation that makes their growth depend heavily on which light wavelengths they receive.
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.
But once we know more about how life can adapt to these extreme environments, will we humans be able to modify life and our bodies at will to adapt to any environment? Gracie explores this concept in Drosophila titanus, a project in which, through selective breeding, the artist aims to develop a new species of fruit fly that is able to 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.
In an interview with Clot Magazine, Gracie said: “The project aims to remind us that organic life is a fluid and ill-defined process, that the environment we know now won’t always be like that, and that the human hand plays a large part in dictating the where, what and how of life as we move forward.”
The Deep Data prototypes and Drosophila titanus are currently on show at the Science Gallery Dublin as part of the exhibition Life at the edges, which will be open until September 2018.