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Friday, 18 February, 2000, 19:28 GMT
The forests of Mars
Carrington
By BBC News Online's Damian Carrington in Washington DC

There could be forests of trees on Mars, growing their own protective greenhouses, within 50 years, one space expert said on Friday.

AAAS Expo
Professor Freeman Dyson, from the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University, was speaking about the future importance of biotechnology in space exploration.

He speculated that genetic manipulation of plants would aid the colonisation of other planets. He also thought that future astronauts might undergo genetic alterations to prepare them for long space journeys.

His comments were made at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual expo.

Space radiation

Professor Dyson told BBC News Online: "If you think it would improve your performance then you may well do it." Examples might include genetically altering the body clock or repairing the DNA damage caused by space radiation.
Health problems of space travel
Bone loss of 1% per month
Muscle atrophy
Exposure to radiation
Disruption of daily body clock
Boredom
Dr Kathie Olsen, the first biologist to be Nasa chief scientist, said: "There are ethical issues involved here." She added: "We will look at mice and gene-knock out research on the International Space Station (ISS)."

In suggesting that trees could be genetically altered to grow their own enclosed environment, Professor Dyson pointed out that other organisms did this routinely: "Turtles grow their shells and polar bears grow their fur. Animals are very good at it, but plants don't appear to have learned the trick. But we could teach them."

Dr Olsen said Nasa believed that future human space travel would not be limited by propulsion technology but by the health and safety of astronauts. She picked out exposure to space radiation as the biggest danger.

Medical gadgets

She also revealed a Nasa plan to build medical gadgets which could do the work of a human doctor: "We are teaming up now with the Cancer Institute with a budget of $20m to make sensors which can detect, diagnose and treat disorders - not just for cancer but for all types of disease."

These would be necessary for space exploration, where astronauts would not have access to extensive medical facilities.

Other aspects of biotechnology in space that Nasa is pursuing include growing food in space. Some success has been achieved in a project to produce sweet potatoes.

Dr Olsen said that much more research time would become available in space once the ISS was commissioned. "Since 1984, there has been just one year of research time on space shuttles. The ISS will offer up a lot of opportunities - a research vehicle up there for 10 years."

See also:

18 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
25 Dec 99 | Science/Nature
12 Feb 99 | Science/Nature
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