Wanted: One couple, extremely confident in their love for each other, to go to Mars

Dennis Tito wants to give you the trip of a lifetime.

How much do you love your partner? Enough to move in with them? To a house with just under 17 cubic meters of space? And then not leave that house for just over 500 days straight? While drinking your own recycled urine?

If you do, you're odd. But, you may be able to find gainful employment on a spacecraft to Mars. The New Scientist reports:

This week the Inspiration Mars Foundation, a newly formed non-profit organisation, announced plans for a mission to Mars launching on 5 January 2018 and arriving at the planet in August of that year. Dennis Tito, who in 2001 became the first space tourist to visit the International Space Station, heads the foundation. The trip will be funded primarily by philanthropic donations – but Tito has committed to personally covering the first two years of mission development, no matter how much it costs.

"This is not a commercial mission," Tito said at a press conference on 27 February in Washington DC. "Let me guarantee you, I will come out to be a lot poorer as a result of this mission. But my grandchildren will come out to be a lot wealthier through the inspiration that this will give them."

Orbital trajectories shared on Twitter by team member Michael Loucks show plans for a spacecraft to leave Earth, fly past Mars and then come home – all within 501 days. The craft will pass over Mars at a distance of about 160 kilometres carrying a two-person crew, probably a married man and woman who will be paid to make the trip.

I'm hoping the specificity of "married man and woman" is an overreach on the part of the New Scientist, because that would be excluding all the wannabe astronauts who are unmarried or in same sex relationships. Hell, you could probably make the case that there should be a requirement that the explorers be a couple of the same sex. Because 501 days is considerably longer than nine months, and the one thing you don't want any chance of is space babies.

(Kidding, space babies would be awesome, but re-entry would be pretty tricky. An infertile couple could also work, of course.)

The full New Scientist piece makes clear that the trip is no easy task. Even ignoring the psychological troubles of being cooped up with someone you love(d) for almost 18 months, there's radiation, piloting, and then a ten-day orbital deceleration to deal with. And if you pull all of that off, you still don't get to actually go to Mars—just circle it from space. It's like that time a friend of mine was refused entry into the USA because they didn't have the right visa, only, I'd imagine, considerably more annoying.

The lucky couple's above for 501 days. Photograph: Inspiration Mars

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Apple-cervix ears and spinach-vein hearts: Will humans soon be “biohacked”?

Leafy greens could save your life – and not just if you eat them.

You are what you eat, and now bioengineers are repurposing culinary staples as “ghost bodies” – scaffolding on which human tissues can be grown. Nicknamed “biohacking”, this manipulation of vegetation has potentially meaty consequences for both regenerative medicine and cosmetic body modification.

A recent study, published in Biomaterials journal, details the innovative use of spinach leaves as vascular scaffolds. The branching network of plant vasculature is similar to our human system for transporting blood, and now this resemblance has been put to likely life-saving use. Prior to this, there have been no ways of reproducing the smallest veins in the human body, which are less than 10 micrometres in diameter.

The team of researchers responsible for desecrating Popeye’s favourite food is led by bioengineering professor Glenn Gaudette and PhD student Joshua Gershlak at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). They were discussing the dearth of organ donors over lunch when they were inspired to use their lunch to help solve the problem.

In 2015 the NHS released figures showing that in the last decade over 6000 people, including 270 children, had died while waiting for an organ transplant. Hearts, in particular, are in short supply as it is so far impossible to perfectly recreate a human heart. After a heart attack, often there is a portion of tissue that no longer beats, and so cannot push blood around the body. A major obstacle to resolving this is the inability to engineer dense heart muscle, peppered with enough capillaries. There must be adequate flow of oxygenated blood to every cell in order to avoid tissue death.

However, the scientists had an ingenious thought – each thin, flat spinach leaf already came equipped with its own microscopic system of channels. If these leaves were stacked together, the resulting hunk of human muscle would be dense and veiny. Cautiously, the team lined the cellulose matrix with cardiac muscle cells and monitored their progress. After five days they were amazed to note that the cells had begun to contract – like a beating heart. Microbeads, roughly the same size as blood cells, were pumped through the veins successfully.

Although the leafy engineering was a success, scientists are currently unaware of how to proceed with grafting their artificial channels into a real vasculatory system, not least because of the potential for rejection. Additionally, there is the worry that the detergents used to strip the rigid protein matrix from the rest of the leaf (in order for human endothelial cells to be seeded onto this “cellulose scaffolding”) may ruin the viability of the cells. Luckily, cellulose is known to be “biocompatible”, meaning your body is unlikely to reject it if it is properly buried under your skin.

Elsa Sotiriadis, Programme Director at RebelBio & SOSventures, told me: “cellulose is a promising, widely abundant scaffolding material, as it is renewable, inexpensive and biodegradable”, adding that “once major hurdles - like heat-induced decomposition and undesirable consistency at high concentrations - are overcome, it could rapidly transform 3D-bioprinting”. 

This is only the most recent instance of “bio-hacking”, the attempt to fuse plant and human biology. Last year scientists at the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa used the same “scrubbing” process to separate the cellulose from a slice of Macintosh red apple and repopulate it with “HeLa” cervix cells. The human ear made from a garden variety piece of fruit and some cervix was intended as a powerful artistic statement, playing on the 1997 story of the human ear successfully grafted onto the back of a live mouse. In contrast to the WPI researchers, whose focus is on advancing regenerative medicine – the idea that artificial body parts may replace malfunctioning organic ones – Andrew Pelling, head of the Pelling Laboratory, is more interested in possible cosmetic applications and the idea of biohacking as simply an extension of existing methods of modification such as tattooing.

Speaking to WIRED, Pelling said: “If you need an implant - an ear, a nose - why should that aesthetic be dictated by the company that's created it? Why shouldn't you control the appearance, by doing it yourself or commissioning someone to make an organ?

The public health agency in Canada, which is unusually open to Pelling’s “augmented biology”, has supported his company selling modified body parts. Most significantly, the resources needed for this kind of biohacking – primarily physical, rather than pharmacological or genetic – are abundant and cheap. There are countless different forms of plant life to bend to our body ideals – parsley, wormwood, and peanut hairy roots have already been trialled, and the WPI team are already considering the similarities between broccoli and human lungs. As Pelling demonstrated by obtaining his equipment via dumpster-diving and then open-sourcing the instructions on how to assemble everything correctly, the hardware and recipes are also freely available.

Biohacking is gaining popularity among bioengineers, especially because of the possibility for even wackier uses. In his interview with WIRED, Pelling was excited about the possibility of using plants to make us sexier, wondering whether we could “build an erogenous interaction using materials that have textures you find pleasing [to change how our skin feels]? We're looking at asparagus, fennel, mushroom...” If he has his way, one day soon the saying “you are what you eat” could have an entirely different meaning.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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