Sunday, December 04, 2011

Mars and Microbial ethics

by Salman Hameed

This semester I have been co-teching a class on Astrobiology with microbiologist Jason Tor and planetary astronomer/geologist Darby Dyar. It has been a lot of fun, and tomorrow, in our last class, we are looking at the ethical implications of the discovery of microbes on Mars. If we have a sure sign of detection, do we continue to send landers on Mars and risk further contamination from Earth? Would humans retain the right to explore and colonize Mars? Can we - from Earth - ever claim even a piece of Mars, or does Mars belong to the Martians, and we have to follow the Prime Directive, and let it evolve on its own? These are indeed difficult questions but we have to address them soon as we are sending more and more sophisticated instruments to detect Martian life (For example, see the recent launch of Mars Science Laboratory). What do you think? If we detect life on Mars, should humans still colonize the planet in the future?

Coincidentally, there is a fascinating article by Carl Zimmer in today's New York Times that talks about bioethics related to microbes that make up our own bodies:
Welcome to the confusing new frontier of ethics: our inner ecosystem. In recent years, scientists have discovered remarkable complexity and power in the microbes that live inside us. We depend on this so-called microbiome for our well-being: it helps break down our food, synthesize vitamins and shield against disease-causing germs. 
“We used to think of ourselves as separate from nature,” said Rosamond Rhodes, a bioethicist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “Now it’s not just us. It’s us and them.”
For bioethicists, one of the most important questions is what our microbes can reveal about ourselves. Studies have revealed, for example, that people who are sick with certain diseases tend to have distinctive collections of microbes. Someday we may get important clues to people’s health from a survey of their microbes. Professor Rhodes argues that this sort of information will deserve the same protection as information about our own genes. Your germs are your own business, in other words. 
But that is only one side of the issue. As scientists get to know the microbiome better, they are also looking for new medical treatments: after all, most antibiotics were first discovered in bacteria and fungi. Michael Fischbach, a biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and his colleagues have discovered a wealth of promising druglike molecules made by microbes in human bodies. 
 It may even be possible to use the bacteria themselves as living drugs. Doctors have treated hundreds of patients suffering from gut infections by giving them so-called fecal transplants: the bacteria from healthy people can create a stable ecosystem that drives disease-causing microbes to extinction. In their more speculative moments, scientists have proposed using microbes to treat obesity or autoimmune diseases. Some researchers are even genetically engineering microbes to make them more effective.
Manufacturers already add beneficial bacteria, called probiotics, to a range of foods. But regulating a microbe is trickier than regulating a molecule. Probiotics can multiply inside us, and can later escape to colonize new hosts. When a doctor prescribes engineered microbes for individual patients, the ethical questions will extend far beyond them, to their families and communities.         
Microbes defy a simple notion of individuality. They are essential to our biology, and they travel with us from birth to death. Yet they also flow between us, and can be found in water, food and soil.
Read the full article here. It seems like we are here to provide a warm and safe environment for the microbes to thrive. May be we should respect our masters on Mars as well :)


wkramer said...

I am currently writing my PhD dissertation on the bioethical aspects of both the discovery of alien life (on a microbial scale) and how bio-prospecting and patenting such life might affect our bioethical concern, or lack thereof. A primary problem is the definition of life itself, including the "blending" of organisms at the genetic level pointed out in the article. In many ways we "are" our microbes and they are us.

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks for your comment and it is fantastic to hear that your doctorate is focusing on these bioethics questions. I'm quite interested in this topic and will contact you via e-mail as well. All the best.