Team:UNIK Copenhagen/Ethics


Our main objective is to inspire the public to be interested in in Synthetic Biology and Space Exploration. We want to show that in combining two fields of science, new possibilities (and concerns) arise. Our goal is to show how Synthetic Biology can be used in space exploration, in order to make Mars-missions more feasible: by designing moss which are a) more resistant to harsh martian conditions and b) capable of producing useful compounds for astronauts (medicine, plastics etc.). We also want to show a more nuanced view of Synthetic Biology, and a very important aspect of our project is to address and discuss the ethics concerning both Synthetic Biology and planetary exploration.

Main Concerns

1. If there is life or traces of life on Mars the last thing we want to do is kill it.
2. We do not want to contaminate any planetary surface or space environment.

Ethics and Mars

The long vision of our project is to develop the technologies which will enable us to someday bring moss to Mars. The moss will be designed to produce useful components for astronauts. The Moss (as well as everything else brought to Mars on a human mission) would be kept in a confined environment such as a bio-dome or a laboratory. The reason why we design the moss to sustain harsh conditions is that a bio-dome would require less energy when built and when running for instance if we did not need to heat the inside temperature. Still we have to consider the possibility that the moss or something else could by accident contaminate the Martian environment. Other ethical issues regards the astronauts and how we should address and test medical implications of using these components produced by the moss.

Planetary Protection Treaty

Current space missions go through planetary protection protocols to ensure that foreign bodies are not contaminated. The Planetary Protection Treaty was established in 1956 by the Committee on Space Research. The aim of the Treaty is to prevent forward and back contamination during a space mission. Forward contamination is the contamination of a celestial object by organisms from earth that may have contaminated the spacecraft on the way to the object. The slightly rarer case would be back contamination, which is the risk of bringing unknown lifeforms - if they do exist - back to earth. Both have quite alarming ethical implications.

Who Should Own Mars?

Space exploration has a number of geopolitical implications as well, for example over the ownership of planets. Should ownership of a planet be determined on a “first come first served” basis or should a piece of Mars be given to each country on earth? Perhaps they are both an old fashioned way of thinking and Mars should be public property, not determined by any nationalistic sentiment. However which organisation should then be in charge of implementing rules and laws on Mars? Should it be the UN, the astronomical society or something entirely different? Such questions may sound unimportant now but the time is fast approaching when they will be critical in determining our future as a two planet species.

Future agreements can look to modern international cooperation treaties and principals. Common heritage of mankind is a principle of international law which holds that defined territorial areas and elements of humanity's common heritage (cultural and natural) should be held in trust for future generations and be protected from exploitation by individual nation states or corporations. Antarctica is one example of a place that didn't have any indigenous population, with groups of national explorers arriving in modern times. The purpose of the Antarctic treaty is to ensure: "in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue for ever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord." Additionally, the United Nations has established a comprehensive agreement on Outer Space, called the Outer Space Treaty. These laws do not automatically preclude the use of organisms for terraforming Mars, but do ensure mechanisms for collaboration and mutually beneficial development and behavior. The concerns of introducing organisms to Mars were brought up in media coverage, in particular the article in Politiken newspaper, and in the Nova radio interview. Also, this aspect of ethics was discussed at all of our presentations and was an area of lively conversation.

Medical Complications

One of the ethical issues regarding space exploration that ties in with our project is medical research in outer space. We are only now beginning to understand the effect long-term effect of space travel on human physiology, and as such pharmaceuticals conceived on Earth might potentially interact differently with the body when consumed in space. There could be potential undesired side effects, and thus consumption of moss-made drugs should be monitored carefully.

Then there is also the ethical question of the type of drugs that should be taken aboard the spaceship, or in our case: what kind of drugs should be given priority to be grown by moss? Implementing moss as a large-scale molecular production platform is not something that is bound to happen overnight, so initially the astronauts would have to prioritize what compounds to synthesize. Do you prioritize plastic monomers for use in 3D printers, or compounds that (may or may not) provide health benefits for the crew? Does the health of some astronauts come before others, if this can secure the survival of a potential colony?