Synthetic Biology for Space Exploration: Promises and Societal Implications

Part of the Ethics of Science and Technology Assessment book series (ETHICSSCI, volume 45)


Synthetic biology can greatly accelerate the development of human space exploration, to the point of allowing permanent human bases on Mars within our lifetime. Among the technological issues to be tackled is the need to provide the consumables required to sustain crews, and using biological systems for the on-site production of resources is an attractive approach. However, all organisms we currently know have evolved on Earth and most extraterrestrial environments stress the capabilities of even terrestrial extremophiles. Two challenges consequently arise: organisms should survive in a metabolically active state with minimal maintenance requirements, and produce compounds of interest while relying only on inputs found in the explored areas. A solution could come from the tools and methods recently developed within the field of synthetic biology. The societal implications are complex: there are implications with synthetic biology and human space colonization independently, and together there are potentially more issues. Establishing colonies relying to a large extent on modified organisms and transferring the developed technologies to terrestrial applications raises a wide range of critical ethical questions and unprecedented societal impacts, on Earth as well as on colonized planetary bodies. The scenario of humans as a multi-planet species should be addressed now, as technologies aimed at making it happen are already under development. Here we give a brief overview of the synthetic biology technologies that are being developed to aid human space exploration, before discussing the impacts of proposed medium-term scenarios on the evolution of our society.


Synthetic Biology Directed Evolution Space Exploration Rocky Desert Planetary Body 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The authors are grateful to those who made possible the TASynBio Summer School where this book chapter was presented: the organizers Kristin Hagen, Margret Engelhard and Georg Toepfer, the attendees for their insightful comments and friendly conversations, and the funding body: the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. They are thankful to the editors, whose comments and suggestions lead to significant improvements to the manuscript. They also thank the Italian Space Agency for supporting the BIOMEX_Cyano and BOSS_Cyano experiments. This work was supported by IGPL’s appointment to the NASA Postdoctoral Program at NASA Ames Research Center, administered by Oak Ridge Associated Universities through a contract with NASA, and by CV’s appointment to the NASA Education Associates Program managed by the Universities Space Research Association. Therefore the authors are also greatly thankful to the then Center Director S. Pete Worden.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of BiologyUniversity Tor VergataRomeItaly
  2. 2.NASA EAP AssociateNASA Ames Research CenterMoffett FieldUSA
  3. 3.NASA Ames Research CenterMoffett FieldUSA
  4. 4.NASA Ames Research Center, Earth Sciences DivisionMoffett FieldUSA

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