The Echus Chasma, one of the largest water source regions on Mars. Photograph: Getty Images
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Laurie Penny on Mars: Modern life is science fiction – but would you dare go on a one-way mission to Mars?

Would you sign up for a perilous journey, knowing that you’ve got just one shot at making the human race a bit better, a bit braver?

If you were offered a one-way ticket to Mars, would you take it? It’s a serious question. The first manned Mars landing, organised by a Dutch company called Mars One, has put out a call for applicants. In 2018, the planets will literally align, making a journey to the Red Planet more than feasible. You don’t have to be a trained astronaut but you must be willing to spend 521 days in a very small space with three other people, with limited supplies and drinking water reclaimed from your own effluvia. You will also be under constant video surveillance, because this mission to Mars is relying on global TV networks to cover its considerable budget. It’s the ultimate Big Brother, with no way out: after a year and a half the colonists will either shag or kill each other, or both. The ratings will be fantastic.

Most of all, you must be willing to say goodbye for ever to your family, your friends, the barista at your favourite coffee shop. This is a one-way trip: even if they make it through the gruelling physical ordeal of the journey, it is possible none of the astronauts will ever come home. Sounds like a raw deal, right?

Yet in its first few days of operation, Mars One received more than 10,000 applications for four places. This was despite a considerable entry cost designed, ostensibly, to screen out spam applicants. The company has already made a small fortune in application fees, making me wonder if it’s a scam. If so, it’s an extremely elegant one, conning millions of desperate people to hope there might be a future for the human race outside this cramped and poisoned planet, and that we might get to be a part of that future. It’s not as if Earth has a great deal going for it right now. No wonder people are falling over themselves to sign up.

It's a little ironic that I'm writing this column on Earth Day, the international celebration of the natural wonders of the third planet on behalf of a population whose leaders are doing their best to burn those wonders for money and choke the rest of us in the process. In the forty years since the first Earth Day in April 1970, with successive world governments having failed almost entirely to tackle climate change, the event has taken on the sort of grim party atmosphere of a nonagenarian's birthday party. Give grandma some cake, everybody! She might not be around to enjoy it next year! I only found out that it was Earth Day on typing the word 'Mars Mission' into the Google Search bar. This further illuminates the logic of exploring other options if you can raise the cash, which most of us can't.

So, would you go? Since I heard about the Mars project, I’ve been putting that question to everyone I meet, because I think the answer says a lot about who you are and what you value. I still can’t decide. I’d have to balance the certainty of playing a heroic role in the early history of human space exploration against the possibility of being locked in a tin can for the rest of my life with a closet Tory, or someone who finds Al Murray amusing.

Furthermore, as one of two women aboard the Mars One, I would eventually be expected to reproduce with my shipmates. Doing the deed wouldn’t pose too many problems – after 521 days adrift in the unfathomable vastness of space, I’d probably find a cheese sandwich attractive if it looked at me in a saucy way. But if I’m going to represent humanity, I’d rather it be because of my natural talents or my winning personality – anything, quite frankly, other than my uterus. Seven generations of women’s liberation activists didn’t fight for education, health access and political representation only to see the first women on Mars reduced to spare wombs. Besides, although sex in zero gravity sounds fun, childbirth is probably less so, especially after more than a year of sitting around drinking your own urine and not washing. Hmm.

Like it or not, most of us are stuck on this planet. Earth, as the physicist Carl Sagan observed, is where we make our stand. The moment you comprehend this fully is the moment recreational drug use becomes either substantially more exciting or less so, depending on what sort of person you are.

When they’re selecting the pioneers to leave the smoking remains of the earth, I will probably lack the requisite skillset for a place on one of the colony ships, because most of what I’m good for is writing articles, drinking coffee and complaining when I have to climb a lot of stairs. The closest I’ll get to outer space is watching interstellar cruisers blow each other into glittering bits on Battlestar Galactica and feeling, as always, that painful longing that digs in right under the ribcage: the understanding that my distant descendants might be lucky enough to see such wonders in real life but I never will.

I imagine that’s how my great-greatgrandparents felt when they read about marvellous inventions such as the internet and the contraceptive pill, both of which were science fiction a scant century ago, and without both of which my life would be unimaginably less free. There is something in us that is hungry, even in the most desperate times, for a future we can only half-envision, and the reason the Mars mission has captured the public imagination is that it promises something that these days is rare and precious: a real journey into the unknown.

A handful of generations ago, it was common for men and women who set off on dangerous journeys to places off the edge of the map to have almost no hope of return. In Ireland, “American wakes” were held whenever a friend or family member sailed for the US. Even if they survived the journey, nobody was expected to come home and it could take months for letters to arrive.

Modern life is science fiction. Love letters cross continents at the speed of thought and dead men sing on the radio. Before the telegram and the steam engine and antibiotics and Google Maps, this planet was simply a lot bigger and scarier. And yet people have never been content to stay at home.

One of the things that distinguish Homo sapiens from many of our competitor species is our capacity to dream up and set about stupidly dangerous endeavours just to find out what might happen. I don’t believe in God but I do believe that humanity is one long, terrible adventure that most of us, if we’re lucky, will never get to see the end of.

So, what did you decide? Would you sign up for a perilous journey, knowing that you’ve got just one shot at making the human race a bit better, a bit braver?

The good news, or the bad news, depending on your viewpoint, is that you don’t have to. You were signed up when you were born. We’re all on a journey like that and it’s called living. That’s no reason not to go to space but it might be reason to get up in the morning.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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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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