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  • Ranjekha J

Genetic Engineering’s Role in our Quest to Becoming a Space Faring Species and its Regulation

Keywords: genetic engineering, CRISPR, spaceflight, regulation

By Ranjekha J, 2nd year B.A. LL.B. (Hons.), Jindal Global Law School


Image Credit: Cain Boudreaux

Since time immemorial, humanity has strived towards fulfilling its ultimate goal – transhumanism. As a term, transhumanism refers to the opposition to human limitations such as biological frailty. No environment exacerbates said frailties more than the void of space. Hence, transhumanism’s infatuation with genetic engineering was an inevitable consequence of the human ambition to become a species devoid of vulnerability. Vulnerabilities that threatened the species’ ability to sustain itself need to be eradicated. Consequently, expanding the extent of human habitation would prove to be an effective solution to cement mankind’s expansionist endeavor. Not only would Space act as a means to enable expansionism, it is also a viable alternative for habitation in the instance of a species-threatening catastrophe on Earth. To put forth comprehensively, Space exploration at present is an untapped goldmine that, in any circumstance, would place mankind at a better position – whether that be in terms of simply increasing the human footprint beyond Earth or preserving the human footprint after Earth. The central argument this piece extends is that space has immense potential in preserving and advancing the human race, and one of the ways this potential can be tapped into is through genetic engineering.

Why is Genetic Engineering Required for Space Flight?

Our threshold for environmental stressors is limited to our current geosphere. The human body is not equipped to withstand variables such as microgravity and radiation without external aid. For example, the baroreceptor reflex which regulates blood pressure and prevents the pooling of blood in your feet is immediately impaired in Space. Microgravity induced changes also affect the vestibular system which has the potential to even anatomically change your eye. NASA studied the effects of spaceflight with the help of a pair of identical twins. Astronaut Scott Kelly was on a year-long mission in space while his twin Mark Kelly stayed back on Earth, making him the perfect control subject. This was a very convenient measure of studying the human biology’s reaction to Space as both the parties had the same genetic outlay. It was observed that chromosomal inversions that had occurred did not reverse itself when he returned to Earth and continued to persist. Cognitive skills also faced a steady reduction, coupled with thickening of his carotid artery which increased his risk of a cardiovascular disease. Our current space missions have mostly been from within the International Space Station (ISS) which is suspended in the Low Earth Orbit (LEO). The missions have mostly, hence, been limited to the LEO. The LEO’s conditions are very different from interplanetary space. The former has the protective shields of the magnetosphere and the Earth’s atmosphere. However, now with increased interest in exploring beyond the LEO, there is a need for figuring out solutions to combat Space’s rather harsh conditions. In our undertaking to explore space and eventually find other places to inhabit, the priority is to prepare the human body for space flight. This is where genetic engineering comes to the forefront.

However, with recent discussions surrounding the habitation of Mars, this topic has piqued the interest of the Space fraternity. A mission to Mars would require, on a rough estimation, three years of deep space exposure. This is approximately six times the duration of a mission on the ISS. The leap we would be taking is rather huge, and the parameters to take into consideration would also undergo a drastic change. A prolonged mission beyond the LEO and the Van Allen belts exceeds NASA’s current perimeter of “acceptable risk.” Acceptable risk can be defined as the probability of an instance, whose chance of occurrence is low, however the instance’s benefits are worthy of the negligible negative repercussions it may have in the off chance that it occurred. The Van Allen Belts of Radiation are zones of highly charged energetic particles, the intensity of radiation in these belts is immense. Exposure to these belts, in the course of space flight, has the potential to severely debilitate and even kill the astronauts. Human endurance is a meagre force to take on space’s inhospitable conditions. Enhancement of humans’ abilities is almost an unnegotiable aspect of furthering our ambitions.

CRISPR’S Role in Enabling Genetic Engineering

CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) technology has been a much-touted mechanism for the same. It is a genome editing technology that has taken the world by storm. One of radiation’s main issues is that it has the potential to induce carcinogenesis, which is essentially the mutation and modification of genes. To prevent this, CRISPR may be employed. The 2 major components to this technology are the Cas9 enzyme and the RNA (Ribonucleic acid) molecule. When CRISPR is utilized, the Cas9 enzyme cuts the part of the DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) - which requires genome editing - and the RNA then proceeds to act as a ‘guide’ for the DNA while it self-repairs the cut caused by the Cas9 enzyme. The RNA acts as an instruction manual for the DNA in its repair and guides its repair in a manner that is advantageous to the organism. It has already been experimented with by the ISS and has opened avenues for how genome editing may be applied in space. Hence, it could arguably be inferred that the process of altering the human blueprint has begun, even if not robustly established yet.

Once we manage to ignite the process of genetic enhancement, the possibilities are endless. We could install adaptations specific to the environment an astronaut would explore. For example, we could create phototropic humans who would be capable of synthesizing all the nutrients needed for survival from minimal ingredients such as the components of soil. The promise and potential of a successful genetically engineered astronaut is immense. However, the caveat is that it allows for greed to corrupt the whole process. Hence, regulation becomes incredibly important.

The Need for Regulation of Genetic Modification for Space Flight

There are a few overarching issues that concern genetic engineering. Firstly, the problem of founder’s effect. It’s essentially the phenomenon of the initial stakeholders setting the trajectory for the future stakeholders. “When a newly formed colony is small, its founders can strongly affect the population’s genetic makeup far into the future.” We are essentially dealing with the very alteration of our species and its consequent branching out in this scenario. How far is too far in the context of modifying humans for development? This is one of the pressing questions plaguing the prospect of genetic enhancement. Secondly, CRISPR is a promising technology but is also an expensive one. The wealthy would have access and the power to influence the conversation about altering our species, while excluding the poorer sections. Furthermore, one must not look at Space as a tool only for realizing the species’ expansionist ambitions. It is also, at present, our only viable refuge in case of a catastrophe on Earth. An opportunity at survival should not be a privilege but rather, a right. The third issue is the prospect of an irreversible and detrimental genetic alteration. To understand this, we must first understand that there are two kinds of genetic editing – somatic and germline. The edits made to the germline would be heritable in nature. If we have ambitions such as settling on Mars, a germline edit would be more efficient because we would not have to constantly waste resources on ‘altering’ the inhabitants. In a sense, we would automate the adaptation process with germline editing. However, this perk is also its risk. Its irreversibility may end up working against us. Hypothetically, if we induce a change that does not work as per our expectations, we would be endangering a whole species.

Present Regulatory Mechanisms

The risks of issues outlined above can be mitigated through comprehensive regulatory mechanisms. Genetic modification is a swiftly emerging but also mercurial field. Legislation needs to be dynamic for it to take effect.

For an international perspective on the current regulatory mechanisms surrounding genome editing, reference may be made to the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (“Declaration”). Section D of the Declaration specifically lays out the “conditions for the exercise of scientific activity.” Article 13 under that Section, explicitly underscores that caution must be undertaken because of the ethical and social implications of genetic modification.. Article 14 further goes on to involve the State as an actor in creating a conducive environment for further research but simultaneously as an overlooking mechanism that must interfere when there is any discernment of lax withing the scientific community.

In its report titled “Updating its Reflection on the Human Genome and Human Rights” the International Bioethics Committee aptly recognises the caution that must be taken when introducing genetic modifications which are heritable in nature. It consequently called for a moratorium on the same, advising the scientific community as a whole to only employ modifications which are non-heritable for the purposes of preventive, diagnostic or therapeutic reasons. Modifying a human for Space would fall under the category of a ‘therapeutic’ measure, however one must take into account the conditions (such as non-heritability) before modifying the human genome. This would enable a more gradual and measured exposure to the phenomenon, hence increasing the chance of preventing any irreversible and regrettable decision.

In India, there is no statutory provision forbidding genome-editing but there are certain governmental guidelines. These are more flexible in nature and subject to amendments. However, they are not as enforceable as formal laws. This disadvantage could be eliminated by incorporating the United States’ model of employing regulatory bodies to allow and disallow editing. The US allows for germline editing outside of federal funding. This framework keeps the process in check by State intervention and also allows room for individuals to further work on this privately. The absence of State legitimisation enables people to not turn to genome editing with complete trust, and this lack of trust is needed until we strike a stable ground with genetic engineering.


Genetically engineering astronauts for spaceflight helps tackle the physically taxing environment in Space, which may hinder their performance. This engineering maybe enabled through an emerging and promising technology called CRISPR. However, the application of such technologies must be regulated through guidelines and laws to prevent consequences such as founder's effect, increase of divide between the rich and poor and detrimental genetic alteration. Inspiration for the drafting of these regulatory mechanisms may be taken from pieces such as the Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights, and reports of the International Bioethics Committee. Caution and hesitation are imperative, especially when we are dealing with something that has the potential to wipe out our whole species. Genetic engineering’s role as a boon or bane will be declared by how we put it to use. Space is our only and best alternative to establish an alternate habitable environment. It is a double edged sword, no doubt, but with periodic interventions by invested stakeholders, its potential can be harnessed for the betterment of our species in an unprecedented manner.

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