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[genet-news] BUSINESS & SCIENCE: Venter to sell synthetic biology to NASA to feed and genetically engineer astronauts



                                  PART 1


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TITLE:   BIOLOGIST: SPACE TRAVELERS CAN BENEFIT FROM GENETIC ENGINEERING

SOURCE:  Space, USA

AUTHOR:  Mike Wall

URL:     http://www.space.com/news/craig-venter-nasa-genetic-engineering-101101.html

DATE:    01.11.2010

SUMMARY: "Such tailor-made bugs could ease the difficulties of both spaceflight and living on other planets. [...] Venter also raised the possibility of genetically engineering potential astronauts to handle the rigors of space and space travel. [...] If scientists can figure out how to incorporate such super-charged DNA repair genes into the human genome, astronauts won?t have to worry so much about the damaging cosmic rays hurtling through space. Engineering humans would only come after long consideration and debate, Venter said."

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BIOLOGIST: SPACE TRAVELERS CAN BENEFIT FROM GENETIC ENGINEERING

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. ? NASA?s human spaceflight program might take some giant leaps forward if the agency embraces genetic engineering techniques more fully, according to genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter.

The biologist, who established the J. Craig Venter Institute that created the world?s first synthetic organism earlier this year, told a crowd here Saturday (Oct. 30) that human space exploration could benefit from more genetic screening and genetic engineering. Such efforts could help better identify individuals most suited for long space missions, as well as make space travel safer and more efficient, he said.

?I think this could change the shape of what NASA does, if you make the commitment to do it,? said Venter, who led a team that decoded the human genome a decade ago.

Venter spoke to a group of scientists and engineers who gathered at NASA?s Ames Research Center for two different meetings: a synthetic biology workshop put on by NASA, and Space Manufacturing 14: Critical Technologies for Space Settlement, organized by the nonprofit Space Studies Institute.

Astronauts with the right (genetic) stuff

Genetics techniques could come in extremely handy during NASA?s astronaut selection process, Venter said. The space agency could screen candidates for certain genes that help make good spaceflyers ? once those genes are identified, he added.

Genes that encode robust bone regeneration, for example, would be a plus, helping astronauts on long spaceflights battle the bone loss that is typically a major side effect of living in microgravity. Also a plus for any prospective astronaut: genes that code for rapid repair of DNA, which can be damaged by the high radiation levels in space.

Genetic screening would be a natural extension of what NASA already does ? it would just add a level of precision, according to Venter.

?NASA?s been doing genetic selection for a long time,? he said. ?You just don?t call it that.?

Last summer, the agency chose just nine astronaut candidates ? out of a pool of 3,500 ? for its rigorous astronaut training program based on a series of established spaceflight requirements and in-depth interviews.

A new microbiome

At some point down the road, NASA could also take advantage of genetic engineering techniques to make long space journeys more efficient and easier on astronauts, Venter said.

As an example, he cited the human microbiome, the teeming mass of microbes that live on and inside every one of us. Every human body hosts about 100 trillion microbes ? meaning the bugs outnumber our own cells by a factor of at least 10 to one.

While humans only have about 20,000 genes, our microbiome boasts a collective 10 million or so, Venter said. These microbes provide a lot of services, from helping us digest our food to keeping our immune system?s inflammation response from going overboard.

With some tailoring, the microbiome could help us out even more, according to Venter.

?Why not come up with a synthetic microbiome?? he asked.

Theoretically, scientists could engineer gut microbes that help astronauts take up nutrients more efficiently. A synthetic microbiome could also eliminate some pathogens, such as certain bacteria that can cause dental disease. Other tweaks could improve astronauts? living conditions, and perhaps their ability to get along with each other in close quarters.

Body odor is primarily caused by microbes, Venter said. A synthetic microbiome could get rid of the offenders, as well as many gut microbes responsible for excessive sulfur or methane production.

Food, fuel and the future

Other genomics efforts could one day create or design microbes to maximize the production of food, water and renewable fuel, Venter said. Such tailor-made bugs could ease the difficulties of both spaceflight and living on other planets.

Venter also raised the possibility of genetically engineering potential astronauts to handle the rigors of space and space travel.

The microbe Deinococcus radiodurans, for example, can survive radiation doses 7,000 times higher than those that would kill a human. The bug can reassemble its DNA after its genetic material gets blasted apart by powerful radiation, Venter said.

If scientists can figure out how to incorporate such super-charged DNA repair genes into the human genome, astronauts won?t have to worry so much about the damaging cosmic rays hurtling through space.

Engineering humans would only come after long consideration and debate, Venter said. And the technology needs to advance, too. Venter said his team hasn?t had much success, for example, working with the genome of D. radiodurans outside its native cell.

?We?re trying to apply these tools in a wide variety of areas,? Venter said. ?But we?re just in the early stages.?

Still, Venter said space exploration could benefit greatly from the application of genetic engineering, especially the creation of custom-built organisms.

?I can?t think of an organization that could benefit from synthetic genomics more than NASA,? he said.



                                  PART 2

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TITLE:   ARCTIC GREENHOUSE MAY LEAD TO FARMS ON MARS

SOURCE:  Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada (CBC)

AUTHOR:  Emily Chung

URL:     http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2010/08/27/mars-greenhouse-arctic.html

DATE:    27.08.2010

SUMMARY: "Astronauts visiting Mars in the future may be able to look forward to a fresh salad when they arrive, thanks to Canadian research. Lettuce, radishes and beets have been planted in a remote Arctic greenhouse, where researchers are learning how to grow crops without human contact in an environment that can't normally support edible plants. [...] Researchers have genetically engineered arabidopsis plants to glow in the dark when they're stressed - too hot, too cold, or short of water or nutrients."

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ARCTIC GREENHOUSE MAY LEAD TO FARMS ON MARS

 

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photos at: http://www.cbc.ca/photogallery/fullscreen.html?dataPath=/photogallery/technology/gallery_3790/xml/gallery_3790.xml&startImage=0

103 comments at: http://www.cbc.ca/technology/story/2010/08/27/mars-greenhouse-arctic.html#socialcomments

Arthur C. Clarke

The greenhouse is named after Arthur C. Clarke, the British science fiction author best known for writing the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey, along with the screenplay for the 1968 Stanley Kubrick film of the same name. He died in 2008 at age 90.

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Astronauts visiting Mars in the future may be able to look forward to a fresh salad when they arrive, thanks to Canadian research.

Lettuce, radishes and beets have been planted in a remote Arctic greenhouse, where researchers are learning how to grow crops without human contact in an environment that can't normally support edible plants.

Alain Berinstain, the Canadian Space Agency scientist in charge of the project, said no other greenhouse is designed to operate autonomously like the Arthur Clarke Mars Greenhouse on Devon Island in Nunavut.

"Every greenhouse needs ? electrical power, it needs heat and it needs people, to some extent," said Berinstain, director of science and academic development at the space agency. "The way we provide the people is through a remote link."

On the flip side, humans will need greenhouse-grown plants to provide food and clean the air and water if they begin to spend a lot of time on another planet or the moon, Berinstain said.

The greenhouse is at the Mars Institute's Haughton-Mars Project research station, which is staffed for just a few weeks each summer. The surrounding environment is a polar desert where temperatures can dip below freezing even in July and there is little annual precipitation.

"There's very little vegetation, [it's] very rocky," Berinstain said. "It's beautifully desolate."

The harsh conditions and rocky, Mars-like landscape make it a popular spot to test robots, space suits and other technology designed for use on other planets.

"Wherever we end up operating greenhouses on other planets, it will be an extreme environment," Berinstain said. "So it's about learning to work with a greenhouse that way."

The project was established in 2002 after the Canadian Space Agency heard the Mars Institute was interested in having a greenhouse at the research station.

The researchers visit every summer to set up a spring crop and a fall crop. They also upgrade the computer systems that let them monitor the plants and keep them watered and warm during the growing seasons.

The greenhouse is heated with propane during the summer, and the computers run on solar power. Water comes from a nearby stream and some of it is saved over the winter. The plants are monitored with webcams and sensors that detect the acidity of the nutrient solution, the water levels and the temperature.

When fall arrives, the propane runs out, the plants freeze and the computers are kept running with wind power during the 24-hour darkness of the Arctic winter.

6 years of effort

In spring, temperature sensors detect when it is warm enough to start a second crop.

"It took us about six years of trying before we could have a system robust enough to even work in spring," Berinstain said, adding that electronics are not designed to survive the extreme cold of the Arctic winter.

"Just being able to send commands and being able to gather data in the spring was a big milestone."

For the past three or four years, the researchers have been collaborating with scientists at the University of Florida to develop a new type of "living sensors" that can detect greenhouse conditions.

They are in the form of plants from the mustard family, called arabidopsis. Researchers have genetically engineered arabidopsis plants to glow in the dark when they're stressed - too hot, too cold, or short of water or nutrients.

"With this technique, you can ask a plant directly, 'Are you hungry, are you thirsty, are you hot, are you cold?" Berinstain said.

That means people would no longer have to guess the plant's condition, based on the sensors.

Berinstain said such living sensors would be very robust and could be used in greenhouses both in space and on Earth.




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