Biotechnology on Titan
I want to revisit a topic that I discussed many moons ago, about the crops that explorers will be bringing on voyages to distant planets and moons, as well as the type of crops that they will be growing on the planet. Once again, the topic of edible plants has been brought up, but this time in the light of biotechnology. This month we are going to talk about genetically modified plant, and I want to state upfront that I will not be defending or attacking these plants, but I will be discussing the probable use of these plants at a future time, and their use in space travel.
At this point, I should probably stop and discuss some terms, so that everyone in on the same page. The term “genetically modified” is a hot button issue, and mentioning GM crops usually brings strong emotions and heated discussions. This term, on its face, simply means a change in the genetic make-up of an organism, which could mean many things. As many people have pointed out, humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for many millennia. When a human starts to artificially select and cross-breed organisms, this act will modify the genetic makeup, or genotype, of the offspring. All one needs to do is look at the history of maize (Zea mays
), from its humble beginnings as Teosinte, to the massive corn stalks planted in the mid-west during the 20th century. We have genetically modified the Zea
genome to produce plants with larger seeds/fruits for human consumption.
From Wiki Commons, Teosinte, a hybrid and Maize
Now, when referring to corn, most people have heard of the controversy surrounding genetically modified crops. In many cases, this focuses on the problem of labeling foods with GM crops from non-GM foods. In most of these cases, people are actually referring to “transgenic” crops. This term refers the transfer of a gene or genetic material between organisms, and sometimes different species. People talk about the insertion of genes into mice to create mutant varieties to study diseases, or transferring genes from one species to another to engineer a new hybrid. There are nutrition examples of rice that is enriched with Vitamin A, and extreme examples of plants that glow because of firefly genes. Most of these conversations discuss organisms that have been manipulated by humans due to the biotechnology revolution, but trangene transfer happens frequently in the bacterial realm. Bacteria, as organisms that don’t engage in sexual reproduction, regularly transfer genetic information between individuals, allowing them to adapt to new environmental conditions. So as you can see this is not unique to humans, but we have certainly capitalized on this process, and expanded it to cross the species, family and even kingdom barrier.
So, are genetically modified, transgenic crops, bad? A loaded question, indeed! I bring it up because the future will probably have a different answer to this question then humans living in the early 21st century. Right now, people are being cautious – more so in Europe, with less success in the United States. The answer to the question seems to depend on how you interpret scientific research results, which we can mostly agree, is not the strength of Americans.
If we narrow this question, and ask, “Is there data that shows that these GM crops are harmful to humans?”, then we have the ability to look at the studies that have investigated this. Overall... the studies that we have, don’t provide evidence that transgenic crops are harmful to humans. So, what do we do with this information? Most opponents of GM crops indicate that we need longer term studies to answer this question, and in the meantime, we need to label these foods. This is probably true on both statements, but it leaves us with the result that the “null hypothesis is supported”. In other words, the experiments between GM foods and non-GM foods have no difference on human health, so there is no need to impose an alternate hypothesis, such as that GM foods cause X, or non-GM foods provide Y.
If we circle around to our future explorers on the way to Titan, we start to get a clearer picture of if and how these crops would be used. By the time we have the technology to safely and quickly travel to Titan, we would be light-years ahead in our understanding of the effects of transgenic crops on our health. In fact, barring some large scale, deleterious effects on human health, we will probably start to adopt such crops. With each generation, these modified plants would distress people less. In fact, people would probably start to accept the advantages of genetically engineering these plants, while not seeing any disadvantages.
In the end, during the late 21st century, explorers would probably be setting off to Titan with genetically modified plants on board, and next month we will discuss the types of GM plants that would come along for the journey.