Thursday, May 14, 2009

Kim Stanley Robinson on Genetically Engineering Martians

Genetically engineered microorganisms, or GEMs, had been on the scene only about half a century when the first hundred arrived on Mars. But half a century in modern science is a long time. Plasmid conjugates had become very sophisticated tools in those years. The array of restriction enzymes for cutting, and ligase enzymes for pasting, was big and versatile; the ability to line out long DNA strings precisely was there; the accumulated knowledge of genomes was immense, and growing exponentially; and used all together, this new biotechnology was allowing all kinds of trait mobilization, promotion, replication, triggered suicide (to stop excess success), and so forth. It was possible to find the DNA sequences from an organism that carried the desired characteristic, and then synthesize these DNA messages and cut and paste them into plasmid rings; after that cells were washed and suspended in a glycerol with the new plasmids, and the glycerol was suspended between two electrodes and given a short sharp shock of about 2,000 volts, and the plasmids in the glycerol shot into the cells, and voila! There, zapped to life like Frankenstein's monster, was a new organism. With new abilities.

~
Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson (1993)
Robinson's description of engineering DNA sequences and introducing them into cells using electricity almost reads like an excerpt from a biology textbook. It was (and pretty much still is) the standard molecular biology technology of the present day. In Red Mars genetic engineering is used to modify microorganisms, fungi, algae and plants to aid in the terraforming of Mars. It's pretty mundane science - and that's the way he meant it to be.

Back in 1996, Robinson answered readers questions for Science Fiction Weekly, including the following:
Why couldn't the geneticists of the Mars trilogy alter the human genome to allow humans to breathe and live in a less-altered environment?
His answer made it clear that he was sticking to science that would be achievable in the near-future of Red Mars, which is set in 2026:

The technology described in the Mars trilogy is not super-science, and the genetic engineering as outlined in some detail in Red Mars is not that far beyond what they are doing now. So you can make some changes, but you can't just drastically remake creatures and plants. The existing Martian environment has an atmosphere of 10 millibars of mostly CO2, and no genetic engineering is going to make us able to breathe that, nor keep all our capillaries from exploding (die by hickey as Damon Knight put it), etc.

And so, if you're altering the environment a little, you might as well go for a little more and not get into the realm of super-science, or the postulated realm of radically altered bodies. I like our bodies the way they are.

I like the plausibility of that, as if colonizing Mars is within our current scientific means.

You can read Red Mars for free by downloading a copy from the Suvudu Free Book Library (pdf version, Kindle version).

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