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  • Translator: Joseph Geni Reviewer: Joanna Pietrulewicz

  • For thousands of years, well, really probably millions of years,

  • our ancestors have looked up at the sky and wondered what's up there,

  • and they've also started to wonder,

  • hmm, could we be alone in this planet?

  • Now, I'm fortunate that I get to get paid to actually ask some of those questions,

  • and sort of bad news for you,

  • your tax dollars are paying me to try to answer some of those questions.

  • But then, about 10 years ago,

  • I was told, I mean asked,

  • if I would start to look at the technology to help get us off planet,

  • and so that's what I'm going to talk to you about today.

  • So playing to the local crowd,

  • this is what it looks like in your day-to-day life in Boston,

  • but as you start to go off planet, things look very, very different.

  • So there we are, hovering above the WGBH studios.

  • And here's a very famous picture of the Earthrise from the Moon,

  • and you can see the Earth starting to recede.

  • And then what I love is this picture

  • that was taken from the surface of Mars looking back at the Earth.

  • Can anyone find the Earth?

  • I'm going to help you out a little.

  • (Laughter)

  • Yeah.

  • The point of showing this is that when people start to go to Mars,

  • they're not going to be able to keep calling in

  • and be micromanaged the way people on a space station are.

  • They're going to have to be independent.

  • So even though they're up there,

  • there are going to be all sorts of things that they're going to need,

  • just like people on Earth need things like, oh, transportation,

  • life support, food, clothing and so on.

  • But unlike on Earth, they are also going to need oxygen.

  • They're going to have to deal with about a third of the gravity that we have here.

  • They're going to have to worry about habitats, power, heat, light

  • and radiation protection,

  • something that we don't actually worry about nearly as much on the Earth,

  • because we have this beautiful atmosphere and magnetosphere.

  • The problem with that is that we also have a lot of constraints.

  • So the biggest one for us is upmass,

  • and the number that I've used for years

  • is it costs about 10,000 dollars to launch a can of Coke into low Earth orbit.

  • The problem is, there you are with 10,000 dollars later,

  • and you're still in low Earth orbit.

  • You're not even at the Moon or Mars or anything else.

  • So you're going to have to try to figure out

  • how to keep the mass as low as possible so you don't have to launch it.

  • But on top of that cost issue with the mass,

  • you also have problems of storage

  • and flexibility and reliability.

  • You can't just get there and say, "Oops, I forgot to bring,"

  • because Amazon.com just does not deliver to Mars.

  • So you better be prepared.

  • So what is the solution for this?

  • And I'm going to propose to you for the rest of this talk

  • that the solution actually is life,

  • and when you start to look at life as a technology,

  • you realize, ah, that's it,

  • that's exactly what we needed.

  • This plant here, like every person here

  • and every one of your dogs and cats

  • and plants and so on,

  • all started as a single cell.

  • So imagine, you're starting as a very low upmass object

  • and then growing into something a good deal bigger.

  • Now, my hero Charles Darwin,

  • of course, reminds us that there's no such thing as a designer in biology,

  • but what if we now have the technology

  • to design biology,

  • maybe even design, oh, whole new life-forms

  • that can do things for us that we couldn't have imagined otherwise?

  • So years ago, I was asked to start to sell this program,

  • and while I was doing that,

  • I was put in front of a panel at NASA,

  • as you might sort of imagine,

  • a bunch of people in suits and white shirts and pencil protectors,

  • and I did this sort of crazy, wild,

  • "This is all the next great thing,"

  • and I thought they would be blown over,

  • and instead the chairman of the committee just looked at me straight in the eye,

  • and said, "So what's the big idea?"

  • So I was like, "OK, you want Star Trek?

  • We'll do Star Trek."

  • And so let me tell you what the big idea is.

  • We've used organisms to make biomaterials for years.

  • So here's a great picture taken outside of Glasgow,

  • and you can see lots of great biomaterials there.

  • There are trees that you could use to build houses.

  • There are sheep where you can get your wool from.

  • You could get leather from the sheep.

  • Just quickly glancing around the room, I'll bet there's no one in this room

  • that doesn't have some kind of animal or plant product on them,

  • some kind of biomaterial.

  • But you know what?

  • We're not going to take sheep and trees and stuff to Mars.

  • That's nuts, because of the upmass problem.

  • But we are going to take things like this.

  • This is Bacillus subtilis.

  • Those white dots that you see are spores.

  • This happens to be a bacterium that can form incredibly resistant spores,

  • and when I say incredibly resistant, they've proven themselves.

  • Bacillus subtilis spores have been flown on what was called LDEF,

  • Long Duration Exposure Facility, for almost six years

  • and some of them survived that in space.

  • Unbelievable, a lot better than any of us can do.

  • So why not just take the capabilities,

  • like to make wood or to make wool or spider silk or whatever,

  • and put them in Bacillus subtilis spores,

  • and take those with you off planet?

  • So what are you going to do when you're off planet?

  • Here's an iconic picture of Buzz Aldrin looking back at the Eagle

  • when he landed, oh, it was almost 50 years ago, on the surface of the Moon.

  • Now if you're going to go to the Moon for three days

  • and you're the first person to set foot,

  • yeah, you can live in a tin can,

  • but you wouldn't want to do that for, say, a year and a half.

  • So I did actually a calculation, being in California.

  • I looked at what the average size of a cell at Alcatraz is,

  • and I have news for you,

  • the volume in the Eagle there, in the Lunar Module,

  • was about the size of a cell at Alcatraz

  • if it were only five feet high.

  • So incredibly cramped living quarters.

  • You just can't ask a human to stay in there for long periods of time.

  • So why not take these biomaterials and make something?

  • So here's an image that a colleague of mine

  • who is an architect, Chris Maurer, has done of what we've been proposing,

  • and we'll get to the point

  • of why I've been standing up here holding something

  • that looks like a dried sandwich this whole lecture.

  • So we've proposed that the solution to the habitat problem on Mars

  • could just simply lie in a fungus.

  • So I'm now probably going to turn off everyone

  • from ever eating a mushroom again.

  • So let's talk about fungi for a second.

  • So you're probably familiar with this fruiting body of the fungus.

  • That's the mushroom.

  • But what we're interested in actually is what's beneath the surface there,

  • the mycelium,

  • which are these root hair-like structures

  • that are really the main part of the mushroom.

  • Well, it turns out you can take those --

  • there's a micrograph I did --

  • and you can put them in a mold

  • and give them a little food --

  • and it doesn't take much, you can grow these things on sawdust --

  • so this piece here was grown on sawdust,

  • and that mycelium then will fill that structure

  • to make something.

  • We've actually tried growing mycelium on Mars Simulant.

  • So no one's actually gone to the surface of Mars,

  • but this is a simulated surface of Mars,

  • and you can see those hair-like mycelia out there.

  • It's really amazing stuff.

  • How strong can you make these things?

  • Well, you know, I could give you numbers and tests and so on,

  • but I think that's probably the best way to describe it.

  • There's one of my students proving that you can do this.

  • To do this, then, you've got to figure out how to put it in context.

  • How's this actually going to happen?

  • I mean, this is a great idea, Lynn,

  • but how are you going to get from here to there?

  • So what we're saying is you grow up the mycelium in the lab, for example

  • and then you fill up a little structure, maybe a house-like structure that's tiny,

  • that is maybe a double-bagged sort of plastic thing, like an inflatable --

  • I sort of think L.L.Bean when I see this.

  • And then you put it in a rocket ship and you send it off to Mars.

  • Rocket lands,

  • you release the bag

  • and you add a little water,

  • and voila, you've got your habitat.

  • You know, how cool would that be?

  • And the beauty of that is you don't have to take something prebuilt.

  • And so our estimates are that we could save 90 percent of the mass

  • that NASA is currently proposing by taking up a big steel structure

  • if we actually grow it on site.

  • So let me give you another big idea.

  • What about digital information?

  • What's really interesting is you have a physical link to your parents

  • and they have a physical link to their parents, and so on,

  • all the way back to the origin of life.

  • You have never broken that continuum.

  • But the fact is that we can do that today.

  • So we have students every day in our labs --

  • students in Boston even do this --

  • that make up DNA sequences

  • and they hit the "send" button

  • and they send them to their local DNA synthesis company.

  • Now once you break that physical link

  • where you're sending it across town,

  • it doesn't matter if you're sending it across the Charles River

  • or if you're sending that information to Mars.

  • You've broken that physical link.

  • So then, once you're on Mars,

  • or across the river or wherever,

  • you can take that digital information,

  • synthesize the physical DNA,

  • put it maybe in another organism

  • and voila, you've got new capabilities there.

  • So again, you've broken that physical link. That's huge.

  • What about chemistry?

  • Biology does chemistry for us on Earth,

  • and again has for literally thousands of years.

  • I bet virtually everyone in this room has eaten something today

  • that has been made by biology doing chemistry.

  • Let me give you a big hint there.

  • What about another idea?

  • What about using DNA itself to make a wire?

  • Because again, we're trying to miniaturize everything.

  • DNA is really cheap.

  • Strawberries have a gazillion amount of DNA.

  • You know, you could take a strawberry with you, isolate the DNA,

  • and one of my students has figured out a way

  • to take DNA and tweak it a little bit

  • so that you can incorporate silver atoms in very specific places,

  • thus making an electrical wire.

  • How cool is that?

  • So while we're on the subject of metals,

  • we're going to need to use metals for things like integrated circuits.

  • Probably we're going to want it for some structures, and so on.

  • And things like integrated circuits ultimately go bad.

  • We could talk a lot about that, but I'm going to leave it at that,

  • that they do go bad,

  • and so where are you going to get those metals?

  • Yeah, you could try to mine them with heavy equipment,

  • but you get that upmass problem.

  • And I always tell people, the best way to find the metals for a new cell phone

  • is in a dead cell phone.

  • So what if you take biology

  • as the technology to get these metals out?

  • And how do you do this?

  • Well, take a look at the back of a vitamin bottle

  • and you'll get an idea of all the sorts of metals

  • that we actually use in our bodies.

  • So we have a lot of proteins as well as other organisms

  • that can actually specifically bind metals.

  • So what if we now take those proteins

  • and maybe attach them to this fungal mycelium

  • and make a filter so we can start to pull those metals out

  • in a very specific way without big mining equipment,

  • and, even better, we've actually got a proof of concept

  • where we've then taken those metals that we pulled out with proteins

  • and reprinted an integrated circuit using a plasma printer.

  • Again, how cool?

  • Electricity: I was asked by a head of one of the NASA centers

  • if you could ever take chemical energy and turn that into electrical energy.

  • Well, the great news is it's not just the electric eel that does it.

  • Everybody in this room who is still alive and functioning