Martian couple

  

While many futurists, tech entrepreneurs and science fiction fans are all abuzz about the idea of a manned human colony on Mars within the next few decades, one evolutionary biologist has shared a rather cold dose of reality.

NASA, Elon Musk and many others, including current and former US presidents, have publicly discussed plans to colonize Mars within the next few decades, focusing on the logistics of getting manned spacecraft to the red planet, but an evolutionary biologist at Rice University, Scott Solomon, has been focusing on one specific question: “what if we’re actually successful?”

“I don’t think there has been nearly as much discussion about what would become of the people that are living in these colonies generations later,” Solomon told Inverse.

Solomon has some rather bold and somewhat alarming predictions about what might become of future generations of Mars colonists, or should we say, Martians.

If a mutation pops up for people living on Mars, and it gives them a 50-percent survival advantage, that’s a huge advantage, right? And that means that those individuals are going to be passing those genes on at a much higher rate than they otherwise would have.

The scientist predicts that, due to the extremely controlled environment that the Martians will be forced to live in, they will become near-sighted from staying in enclosed environments almost all the time.

On top of this, they will have denser bones to overcome gravity but they may eventually become more brittle, with drastic consequences for reproductive health; old-fashioned, natural childbirth might prove extremely precarious with the increased risk to the mother of a shattered pelvis.

In addition, Solomon believes that Martians would develop a new skin tone while adjusting to the elevated radiation levels on Mars compared with the Earth. Humans use melanin while other, Earth-bound animal species use carotenoids to fend off the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation, but martian colonists would likely develop a new skin tone while acclimating to the harshness of Mars over the course of generations.

He also predicts that descendants of the first Martian colonists will have denser capillary beds, like earthling Tibetans do, who are used to processing air with 40 percent less oxygen than at sea level.

The lifestyle of a Mars colonist would also have an extreme effect on their immune system, given that the vast majority of their time would be spent in a sterile environment with few, if any, microorganisms present.

This would essentially render meetings between Martian colonists and people from Earth extremely dangerous, as the latter would be carrying diseases, illnesses and bacteria to which the Martian colonists would simply have no defence. In short: Martian-Earthling sex will be a no-no, with fatal consequences for any Martian that dares.

All of these changes would happen sooner than we on Earth might expect, within a generation or two.

To overcome such issues, Solomon advocates the use of the latest gene-editing techniques, such as CRISPR, to alter colonists’ DNA and modify gene function to better adapt to the new, intense environment.

“Why wait around for this mutation to occur if you can just go in and make them yourself,” he said.

“If I were designing a human colony on Mars, I would want a population that would be hundreds of thousands of people, with representatives of every human population here on Earth.”