DNA itself might hold the key to our future in space

Image credit | Syda Productions

DNA is something that we began to discover and understand at about the same time as we started to invent computers. At least, computers that didn’t need an apartment block and a team of scientists just to switch one on.

It then ‘disappeared’ as other scientists worked to unravel it, understand it and, more recently, link it back to the world of computers.

One major step forward was the realisation that DNA has huge potential to store information. This may not be that surprising, given the amount of information whizzing around the human body. Then, not long ago, scientists stored Massive Attack’s – apparently – iconic album on DNA. That was two years ago and cost a lot, and took a lot of time.

Much more recently, scientists have put The Wizard of Oz on DNA in a much more efficient and fool-proof manner.

“The key breakthrough is an encoding algorithm that allows accurate retrieval of the information even when the DNA strands are partially damaged during storage,” according to Ilya Finkelstein, an associate professor of molecular biosciences and one of the authors of the study.

All of which sounds fascinating but not particularly relevant.

Unless you are one of those people who, when you gaze at the stars, does not think ‘how pretty’ but rather thinks ‘I wonder how we get there?’

The reason is that part of the process of storing information on DNA is converting from its binary 1s and 0s into A, C, G or T, which are the instructions for our DNA.

And if we can do that, we can email DNA.

And if you can email DNA, that saves all that mucking about transporting seeds and food and stuff to the stars, and should cut a few decades off the process of getting there.

It will also have enormous consequences in space when astronauts get sick. We have said before that having a heart attack or even a nose bleed in zero gravity is, at best, a messy affair and that to do surgery without getting covered in goo you need gravity.

But step into the future and probably not too far, when many diseases can be cured by fixing faulty DNA and all you need to do when your fellow space traveller gets ill is have Mission Control email up a DNA patch and you’re back in business.

The bad news is that DNA, like everything else nowadays, has two sides to it. The good side is the storage and the cures and emailing. The bad side is that if DNA can be edited, then DNA can be hacked and what can be hacked can be attacked. You read articles talking of ‘weaponised’ DNA and being able to target certain ethnic groups. That ability can only become more dangerous.

So while our understanding and manipulation of DNA might become a key factor in long distance space travel, in the interim we will have almost certainly have other battles to fight.

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