Opinion: thanks to various scientific and technological breakthroughs, we're now at a stage where we could see the making of new worlds in the universe

By Roy Sleator and Niall Smith, Cork Institute of Technology

Life has existed on Earth for almost four billion years. For all but the last 60 years, it has lived exclusively on its surface and oceans. In all this time, our tiny blue planet has been the only known refuge for life. But could the next 60 years see all that change? And should it? Here we look at some new possibilities for a concept called "Directed Panspermia", the intentional seeding of life in the universe by advanced civilizations.

Our story begins with three scientific and technological milestones that are particularly worthy of note. Firstly, the development of propulsion technologies has enabled us to build spacecraft that can travel beyond the edge of our solar system. Voyager 1 is already in interstellar space (literally "between the stars") so we are no longer bound by the gravitational pull of our Earth or Sun. For the first time in the 200,000 year history of our species we can, in principle, begin travelling to the stars or the planets around them.

Trailer for The Farthest, Emer Reynolds' documentary on the Voyager spacecraft

Our second milestone? Recent discoveries show that planets are ubiquitous and likely to exist in even larger numbers than stars. We now have an increasing multitude of exciting destinations to visit with our interstellar spacecraft, and potential host sites on which to search for or seed life. We are even learning about their atmospheres and surfaces using new telescopes to pick the most interesting planets to visit.  

Our third milestone also occurred in the past 60 years, the discovery by Francis Crick and James Watson that DNA is the blueprint for all cellular-based life (and some viruses too). The main role of DNA is one of information storage, allowing replication and evolution as a means to both increase the complexity of organisms and enhance their ability to survive or thrive in the environment in which they find themselves.

As a storage medium, DNA is also a very stable molecule with a staggering theoretical capacity of 455 billion billion bytes per gram. 90 grams of DNA would be sufficient to encode the 40 trillion gigabytes of data expected to have been generated on Earth by 2020. While encoding all we know into 90 grams of DNA is currently cost-prohibitive – about €10,000 per megabyte, or considerably more than all the money in the world for 40 trillion gigabytes – technological advances are reducing the cost of DNA encoding at a compound rate, making the approach feasible within 10 to 20 years.

From RTÉ Six One News, Science & Technology Correspondent Will Goodbody reports on Waterford Institute of Technology research which has devised a new way of archiving and retrieving data in DNA

In principle, we could place all the encoded knowledge of the planet in a container that weighs a tenth of a bag of sugar. We could then load it onto a spacecraft not much bigger than a coffee pot and put it into a long-term orbit around the sun for safe keeping. We could have it wander between the stars in the hope or expectation that it may one day be retrieved.

Alternatively, if we didn’t want to wait for encoding technology costs to drop, we could ask Elon Musk or another of the new breed of space entrepreneurs to take a fraction of a gram of DNA, containing perhaps a gigabyte of information, and launch it into a safe orbit tomorrow at a very reasonable cost of less than €1 million.

But we could also hatch a much more ambitious plan and send our package on a trajectory that takes it to a planet far outside our solar system. Rather than just use the destination planet as a landing site for our archive, we could consider doing something that has profound ethical implications that are far beyond the scope of this article - terraforming, or making new worlds.

The dream of terraforming, so prevalent in 1950s science fiction, could become a reality

DNA can already be synthetically modified to generate cells that are robust in even harsh environments. If we incorporate DNA synthesis technology into our spacecraft, we could analyse the local environment, or use data already available from earth and space observations, and then modify the DNA onboard to build synthetic cells that can thrive in their new home. While miniaturised versions of the technology to do this are not currently available, it seems reasonable to assume that as DNA synthesis becomes more commonplace on Earth that the appropriate miniaturisation will follow. Within 10 to 20 years, this approach looks feasible.

If we really plan ahead, our spacecraft could be designed to continually analyse the environment and synthesise ever-more sophisticated organisms as the planetary environment changes. This would accelerate the evolutionary process, perhaps by a factor of a thousand. The dream of terraforming, so prevalent in 1950s science fiction, could become a reality.

In the words of the great cosmologist Carl Sagan, "exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars."

Professor Roy Sleator is a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Biological Sciences and a Principal Investigator at Cork Institute of Technology's Centre for Research in Advanced Therapeutic Engineering (CREATE). Dr Niall Smith is Head of Research and Head of Blackrock Castle Observatory at Cork Institute of Technology


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ