Many of us saw the movie ‘The Martian’. We also saw the extent to which our hero astronaut, played by Matt Damon, dug out a planet-load or resourcefulness when he was left stranded on Mars. But what if this scenario was to really occur as humankind takes steps closer to a landing on the Red Planet? It’s evident that with what Matt Damon’s fictional character underwent in the movie, there was some reality to what a human body would go through in that kind of atmosphere. So, the questions for those examining the non-fictional eventuality of landing people on Mars is: what about when they have a medical emergency?
Sending them drugs would not only be time consuming, but also perhaps also not cost-efficient. One solution, as per what the movie illustrated, would be for astronauts to grow their own pharmacy on Mars. In Wernher von Braun’s book The Mars Project, a realistic plan for life on the Red Planet is spelled out by the author. With very precise details, von Braun explains how 10 spacecrafts with 70 people on board each, could circumnavigate Mars using regular propellers.
Even if science has made leaps and bounds since the book was published in the 1950s, there are still a lot of details to iron to allow humans to live on Mars. One of these issues, addressed by NASA’s Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space (CUBES) is focused on medical treatment. The feasibility of stocking enough quantity of medicine, but also predicting the types of health issues humans on Mars may face is complex enough. Even though there are known effects of space sojourns on the human body, how realistic would it be to take up otherwise important cargo space for every single probable ailment the Martian travellers could experience?
CUBES is therefore spearheading other solutions via synthetic biology. This is a method whereby biologicals organisms can be engineered on demand. In simpler words, organic matter is manufactured via synthetic means. CUBES is has a Food and Pharmaceuticals Synthesis Division (FPSD) which is investigating methods of growing plants that can be used to manufacture pharmaceutical drugs. One of the models use is that of seed stock: a genetically modified plant seed which would produce a specifically-targeted medical molecule. Such seeds would occupy little space and could easily be sent with Mars-bound astronauts.
The FPSD is also using the agrobacterium transformation technique. This means bacteria become carriers of a particular DNA into the plant genome. The DNA introduced in the plant enables it to produce medicinal proteins that wouldn’t occur naturally. The division is also focusing on genetic synthesis that form a type of code for any medicinal product required. Once on Mars, the astronaut would have a sort of catalogue from which it could pick the required DNA sequence and inject those into the plant so it can grow with the required pharmaceutical molecule.
Although the CUBES has its sight set on Mars, that doesn’t eliminate the possibility to use the technology developed on Earth too. Right now, it would not be advisable to adapt these specifically-designed scientific advances to everyday, human agricultural practice. However, with Earth being faced with natural challenges such as pandemics, calamities and global warming, the disruption enabled by CUBES’s research could prove useful.