Putting the life back in science fiction

And We Thought Hibernation Was Simple 2: now with bleach

Most of a year ago, I posted about the first tardigrade genome sequence, which apparently had a lot of bacterial genes in it.  Now, another group has published another genome (io9 article here, report here), and this apparently changes everything, possibly in a better way.  Or possibly, we’ll see some horror move remake of The Fly, only with Ramazzottius varieornatus at the hybridizing end (paging John Scalzi.  I’ve got your vacuum-sucking warriors right here). Continue reading


When you colonize a planet, what do you mine first?

Just a brief, science-fiction question.  The background is that I realized I didn’t know much about, but I suspect it turns out to be terribly, terribly important for designing colonies on other planets:

When you colonize a planet, what do you mine first? Continue reading

The dust of ages

I came across this little bit when listening to NPR’s On The Media.  The episode is entitled “Digital Dark Age” which of course pricked my ears up immediately, as the digital dark age is something I dealt with in Hot Earth DreamsThe whole hour is worth listening to, but the weird idea I wanted to focus on is the idea of using artificially generated DNA for long-term data storage, an idea put forward by Dr. Nate Goldman in this segment.

Superficially, this is a great idea. Dr. Goldman is working on this idea as a way to store the huge amount of genomics data he has to curate at the European Bioinformatics Institute.  DNA is pretty stable and information dense, so if it’s possible to cheaply generate long DNA sequences and to cheaply read them, it’s a good form of ROM (Read Only Memory).  Dr. Goldman develops this into an idea of caching the great works of civilization in some sort of time capsule that starts by explaining what DNA is and how the code works, then progresses to simple decoding examples, and finally to the whole earth encyclopedia, or whatever is supposed to be in the data cache.  DNA is certainly more durable than known electronic digital media and is smaller than durable analog media like baked clay tablets, so superficially it has a lot going for it.

One little problem with this scenario is the idea that it’s easy to generate and read DNA.  It’s easy now, but I remember how hard it was even 20 years ago when I was in grad school.  This is a new technology.  Indeed, Dr. Goldman doesn’t think this technology will be financially viable for another decade or two, although it’s borderline technologically viable now.

Still, DNA ROM works better if we’re talking about a hypothetical sustainable civilization, as opposed to leaving some sort of time capsule for the next civilization 5,000 years from now or whenever.  DNA is not the kind of storage medium that will allow people to jump-start civilization from a hidden cache.  It’s just too tricky to read and write, even though DNA has demonstrably lasted tens of thousands of years in fossil bones under ideal conditions.

It’s even more suitable when we’re talking about interstellar colonization, where information needs to be stable for thousands of years.   Not only can the genomes of potentially useful organisms be stored as DNA, all the other information the starship needs to curate can be stored as DNA as well.

The other little problem with using DNA to store data is that having such technology widely available means that high-level synthetic biology will be available to anybody who wants it.  After all, if the equivalent of a laptop can generate as much DNA as your average genome, how many more bits of equipment are needed to twirl that DNA into chromosomes, insert it in a cell, and make a new eukaryotic life form?   Letting this kind of technology be available to the public is something that is currently forbidden, at least in current American society.   What kind of societal changes would required for people to believe that such technology is safe?

Still, it’s another possible technology for a hypothetical sustainable and starfaring civilization.  Perhaps in the future, we’ll have computers that are as much biotech as chips, where spam is something you feed your machine to support its self-repair function, rather than something you delete from your inbox.

Or maybe we should try to baked clay tablet thing…


And we thought hibernation was simple…
November 24, 2015, 7:52 pm
Filed under: colonizing space, Real Science Content | Tags: , ,

Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall at the moment so you can only see the abstract, but PNAS just published a draft genome of the tardigrade Hypsibius dujardini.  Here’s the Yahoo news piece on the finding.

Basically, tardigrades are microscopic animals that are renowned for their ability to be frozen, boiled, desiccated, subjected to a vacuum on the outside of the space shuttle and so forth.  They’re the ultimate survivors among animals, and I’m pretty sure that every SF writer who thinks about putting astronauts in hibernation is thinking something along the lines of copying tardigrade’s toughness in humans through some futuristic technology.

But there’s an itty bitty catch.

If the draft genome is right (and there’s no reason to think it isn’t), tardigrades just took the record for having the most foreign DNA in their genome of any animal, about 16%, double the previous record holder.  They’ve got genes “derived from diverse bacteria as well as plants, fungi, and Archaea.”

My first thought was of Brin and Benford’s Heart of the Comet and the weirders (I still like that book), and then that ooh, massive horizontal gene transfer will take us to the stars!  Yay!  We get to go as gardens.

Then I read some more and found out that tardigrades’ toughness comes at a price: their DNA falls apart when they’re desiccated, and their cells get leaky as they rehydrate.  As a result, DNA from the surrounding environment gets taken up into their cells and, where it’s useful somehow, it gets taken into the tardigrade’s rebuilding genome.  Now bacteria do this all the time, so what’s unique here is that an animal has separately evolved the trick.  It’s one hell of a trick too, being able to repair eukaryotic DNA at that level and to usefully incorporate genes from wildly different organisms.  There’s a lot to be learned from these cute little water bears.

Still, this puts a whole different spin on putting people into hibernation to send them into deep space and to the stars.  It looks like tardigrades don’t have a magical way to avoid the damage caused by freezing.  Instead, it looks like they’re amazingly good at picking up the pieces afterwards and rebuilding themselves.  Presumably, that’s what we’ll have to learn to do (assuming it’s possible–tardigrades don’t have big brains),  if we want to turn people into corpsicles and back again without damage.  At the moment, the only methods we know of involve the use of either narrativium or handwavium, and both these elements are really unstable.


Preludes to Space

While I haven’t seen The Martian yet, as a trained botanist, I’m wondering why they didn’t identify the protagonist as the Master Gardener of Mars.  Botany as a science really isn’t that useful on Mars, and what you really need is a good horticulturalist.

Still, this got me thinking.  I’ll admit I’m a big fan of Oceania, and part of that is because the Oceanians–the Polynesians, Micronesians, Melanesians, and Australian aborigines–inhabit some of the most difficult and alien areas parts of the planet, even if we think of them (erroneously) as paradise.  Moreover, the settlement of Oceania is a good testimony to how hard it is to settle such alien environments.  I’m not the only one who thinks this way either.  Dr. Ben Finney, Anthropology Professor Emeritus at U. Hawaii, is both a founding member of the Polynesian Voyaging Society (google Hokule’a), a member of the Planetary Society, and someone who has written multiple articles for NASA on what Pacific anthropology can teach NASA about colonizing space.

Anyway, what’s so alien about Polynesia?  For one thing, none of the islands could support humans very well at all without the plants and animals that the Polynesians brought with them from South East Asia and the Papuan Islands.  These include pigs, chickens, taro, bananas, yams, bamboo, sugar cane, kava, and so forth.  The Polynesians also got sweet potatoes from South America somewhere around 800-1200 CE, but that’s another set of voyages, and I’m getting off track.  The key problem for settling Polynesia is that you’ve got to settle coral atolls as a necessary step to getting to most of the bigger islands.  Coral atolls have plenty of fish, but they have no usable stone (atoll dwellers used clam shells for hard tools), limited water, and few plants can grow there.  In addition to building deep sea ships and learning how to navigate well beyond the sight of land, the islanders had to adapt their entire lifestyles to live on atolls, including learning how to build deep sea ships there, which is a real trick.  This adaptation meant they abandoned ancient technologies like pottery and knapping stone, because neither clay nor stone were available.  For all we know, they even abandoned bronze, but that’s much more speculative.  Once their descendants reached big islands like Hawai’i, they didn’t reinvent pottery or flintknapping, but kept making tools using techniques that worked as well on clamshells as they do on basalt.

If we’re thinking about humans colonizing space, there are a couple of lessons in Polynesian history.  One is that we’ve got to learn to settle space before we colonize other planets.  It’s not just a matter of building a better spaceship, it’s a matter of learning how to live in space, on the Moon, on asteroids, as well as colonizing Mars, the Jovian satellites, and so forth.  This is a giant cultural revolution.  The descendants of the spacers will colonize other planets, but they won’t be moving, say, American car culture to another planet.  They’ll be adapting how their ancestors lived in space to settling the surfaces of these new worlds.  This is something science fiction routinely gets wrong.

The bigger lessons, though, are that colonizing the islands involved whole suites of adaptations from all over, it took a long time, and it was a marginal activity.  The Polynesians had ancestors from everywhere from Taiwan and the Philippines to the Solomon islands, and their dozens of domestic plants and animals came from a similarly wide swath, everything from Asian chickens to Melanesian kava.  While the Islands near Papua New Guinea were all colonized by ca. 13,000 years ago, it took until about 3,500 years ago for the Lapita ancestors of the Polynesians to start colonizing the Solomon Islands and from there to Fiji and Samoa.  Just being able to sail a canoe doesn’t make it possible to settle islands across the Pacific, any more than sending a rover to Mars makes it possible for humans to live there.  And those Lapita people?  They were beach bums and yachties,  fisherfolk who lived near the water, traveled among the islands, possibly traded pots and such, and who definitely hadn’t settled the interiors of all the islands they visited.  They lived on the margins, waterfolk rather than landsmen.

What if the settlement of space was a replay of the settlement of Oceania?  Well, looking around, we’re in that window where we’ve got ships, but we don’t know how to live on little islands yet, or even how to survive beyond cislunar space.  It might take us 10,000 years to get to Mars, too.

One of the ways you can gauge our readiness for space is to look at what I’ll call the Preludes to Space: all the technological precursors that we need to survive up there.  Yeah, we’ve got rockets.  So what?  Life support’s a bigger problem right now.  There are a lot of things we don’t have and don’t know how to do.

For example, if we were ready to colonize space, we wouldn’t be worrying about climate change.  On the scale of hell, a severely climate changed Earth is still massively more benign than Mars, let alone the Moon, Ganymede, or Mercury.  Keeping people fed, watered, housed, and living meaningful lives is going to be a problem anywhere there are people.  If we were serious about space, we’d be investing far more in things like water recycling and compact food production, and we’d be focused on deploying these technologies in places like Syrian refugee camps in Jordan.

Think about the refugee experience in a place, like Jordan, that is severely water stressed as it is.  If we had spaceworthy life support, we’d have things like, oh, hydroponic gardens in shipping containers, where the plants grew under LED lights powered by solar panels, water and nutrients would be mostly recycled and highly efficient, and a shipping container could support a family more or less indefinitely with the right nutrient inputs, which should ideally come out of recycling the family’s sewage and wash-water.  And such a system would be cheap enough that we could build hundreds of thousands of them and ship them to refugee camps around the world, or indeed, to any disaster area.

No, I haven’t run the numbers to see if this would actually work, but that’s about the scale of technology we need as a prelude before we’re ready to settle space, because once we’re in space, we’ll have to learn how to make those technologies using whatever materials are locally available.  Space colonies aren’t domed cities, they’re basically giant collections of greenhouses with tiny homes attached, except that the greenhouses have to be buried, the plants fed by LEDs, and the systems run off solar panels or something similar, to protect against everything from radiation to meteorites.

That’s what the preludes to space look like.  They’re pieces of a cultural tool kit that includes everything from building ships to life support.  If we were ready for space, let alone the stars, our planet would have a rather different set of crises than it does now, and our ability to cope with them would be much more sophisticated.  But we’re not ready yet.

If the space-nuts had any sense, they’d be investing hugely in developing life support systems and deploying them, not in high end cities, but in refugee camps, slums, and similar harsh places where life is marginal, because life will be marginal in space too. Polynesia wasn’t settled by a mass migration of overcrowded Papuans heading for Fiji, but by fisherfolk figuring out how to live on beaches anywhere in the tropical Pacific, and heading out and on.

Feel free to tell Elon Mush, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and Bill Nye that I said this, too.  They’re going to need a bigger toolkit if they really want to tackle this.