Mar 18, 2012

Establishing an Off-Earth Back-up of the Biosphere

Posted by in categories: biological, existential risks, habitats, lifeboat

What would it take to create and later revive a representative biosphere from frozen stores located on the Moon?

The costs of launchers is getting low enough that we can reasonably imagine the establishment of a lunar base well within NASA’s spaceflight budget.

With the discovery of ices on the lunar poles, astronauts could provide their own life-support indefinitely (water, oxygen, food, and fertilizer). While living in a sheltered habitat, they then immediately proceed to establish other basic processes to step-wise become increasingly independent of supplies from Earth (e.g. producing their own metals and glass).

Given the increasing independence of the small colony, one begins to consider if additional steps could be taken to achieve a fully independent small colony to serve as a backup for the human species should a catastrophe destroy humanity (e.g. a large asteroid or our own self-replicating technology).

We wouldn’t want just for humans to survive, but that other species could eventually be reestablished as well. If species could be stored in their frozen single cell form, millions of individual organisms could be delivered to the Moon in each 5,000 kg payload delivery.

But this leads to some interesting questions:

1) We cannot save all species. There are just too many of them. So, which should we choose in order to have a broad representation of the biosphere?

2) In what biologic form should the frozen specimen be so that they can be most easily revived? Bacteria & protozoa — frozen. Fungi — spores. Plants — seeds. But what about birds, mammals, etc? We can freeze embryos, but how do we get the adult mother to gestate them?

3) How could we eventually establish Minimum Viable Populations? (say 1,000 individuals per species).

It seems to me that these questions could form the basis for interesting biology studies. The more these questions are studied, looking for plausible solutions, the more interest there would be for establishing actual terrestrial and lunar preserves for the biosphere.

Now, if you click on the BioPreserver link on this website, you will learn that the Frozen Ark is doing something rather similar to what is suggested above. However, they focus only on endangered species and not a representation of the whole biosphere. Despite significant affiliations, the rate at which they are securing different species is insufficient to imagine backing up the biosphere in any reasonable number of years.

So please comment on the above ideas and suggest how it could be advanced.


Comments — comments are now closed.

  • Anthony on March 18, 2012 12:33 pm

    This is a message to all .Humanity must adhere to the principle of redesign society where the concept of balancing earth ecosystem should be the norm.
    Where slowly ending toward the distruction of our present civilisation.Humanity has been misled by advance entity who are not in anyway seeking humanity advancement.We are regressing even with the so call high tech development.

  • David R. Weinbaum on March 18, 2012 2:31 pm

    The plan is inspiring but closer to fiction than reality and not because of space travel challenges. Life on earth exists in complex ecosystems that are constituted from tens of thousands and more coexisting species that form complex networks of relations. Every specie needs a minimum of genetic diversity in order to survive and adapt to changes. Unless we mean to build a global zoo, we need to think deeper on what would it take to transport a whole existing Eco-system to another place, or alternatively, what would it take to engineer a sustainable Eco-system from scratch. This is a formidable challenge but not insurmountable.

  • Eddie on March 18, 2012 4:16 pm

    Why even send frozen cells to the Moon? Just launch a rocket and have it drop a couple hard drives across the Moon. Then, sequence the genomes of as many organisms as you want and beam the information to the hard drives. The contents of each would be identical (backups), so there would be multiple layers of redundancy. With how fast hard disk prices are coming down, this could be done very cheaply in the near future.

  • Marcus Barber on March 18, 2012 4:38 pm

    The question ‘what species should we choose’ is an interesting one. If it is a case of rebooting the biosphere after a collapse then we’d have to be mindful of the extant conditions and those likely to be workable. Those species are unlikely to be large or complex. The reboot starts with seeding of simple and resilient structures and most likely, things we’d now think of as ‘weeds’ or ‘pests’ as most likely first comers.

    We’d need to be thinking in terms of sustenance which for the homo sapien would be a return back to grains and vegetable based diets simply because the meat based proteins place too big a burden on a fractured biosphere. I guess if the moon group are going well enough we might get the lab meat for those unable to shake off their reliance on sinew structured protein delivery despite the living conditions of a busted planet.

    We’d also need to consider the priming process which means a time based issue. If we introduce certain species first to clean the water and the air, we may not be ready for quite a while to place larger species back on the planet.

    At some point the species homo sapiens sapiens might fulfil its part on the second ‘sapiens’ and finally ‘know’ it is part of a broader system (as David R-W has stated). Perhaps watching on from a dusty rock sending probes down in a Wall-E styled manner might helps us appreciate we can neither rule nor dominate the murky grey-green blob as we believed we could.

  • GaryChurch on March 18, 2012 5:02 pm

    “The plan is inspiring but closer to fiction than reality”

    Well, it’s all fiction till it becomes real David.
    In the remake of “The day the earth stood still” the aliens preserved small globes full of life from different ecosystems. It is a sound idea even if the movie was not very good. We do not have preserve organisms singly but can do it in big bites to be carefully revived and transplanted later.

    Thanks for the article John. I will put up my thoughts as well.

  • JohnHunt on March 18, 2012 9:20 pm

    Thanks all for your responses.

    Anthony, I agree. I personally believe that our high-technology poses the single largest threat to humanity — likely, well beyond any natural threat. I am a pessimist in this matter. I think that those posing the threats have a far greater chance of “success” than any larger number that would attempt to mitigate the threat. It’s really hard to predict and prevent all future threats before you get a chance to see them in reality. So, being a pessimist, I think that we should try to disconnect some people from the atmosphere through which 100.0% of humanity is connected. That’s why I advocate an off-Earth colony ASAP. It just seems prudent to me.

    David, thank you for your thoughtful response. Part of the reason that I posted this article was to get some feedback as to whether it is a reasonable idea. So I very much appreciate your perspective. There are some small biospheres with species which provide the needs for each other in a symbiotic arrangement. Also, we have lost a number of species and our whole biosphere has not collapsed as a result. So, I question if all species are needed to ensure the survive of all other species in a complex web. For example, certain plants may only need certain bacteria, fungi, and insects in order to survive and reproduce nicely. So, I am imaging a new biosphere being recreated (e.g. on Mars) slowly and in a piecemeal manner. There may be setbacks due to previously unknown ecologic relationship. But then you hold off using duplicate eggs (for example) until you have a better idea why it didn’t work the first time. With frozen “seeds” (e.g. eggs) in permanently shadowed craters in a cave under regolith you could have a lot of time to experiment and work out the bugs. Re: minimum of genetic diversity I think that I already addressed that issue at least for certain representative species. For a 5,000 kg package, you could have 1,000 2mm^2 samples for 625,000 different species. If those samples were DNA swabs of unique individuals, it would take advanced biotechnology to revive those individuals but theoretically in the distant future, it could be done. So I see the limitation being more of organizing a world-wide collaborative effort to get a whole lot of “seed” specimens and swabs.

    Eddie, that is a very innovative concept. Reviving high-level organisms from DNA alone is not currently within our technology. But again, in the distant future, it might be possible although there is more to an organism than its DNA (e.g. epigenetics). The hard drives would need to be protected from galactic cosmic rays. Also, you would still need a viable human colony to eventually develop the technology to revive the species eventually. My feeling is that it would actually be less expensive and easier to obtain the DNA samples rather than sequence that many samples although it would be interesting to compare the transport costs either way. Again, a single 5,000 kg payload on the Moon could hold a tremendous amount of biologic samples.

    Marcus, well put. Cleansing the Earth is an interesting concept. My feeling is that a contaminated Earth would pose a continuous theoretical risk to the Earth-Moon area. I think that the first priority should be for the colonists to spread further away from the Earth while taking fractions of the BioPreserve. After securing themselves on Mars, I would want them to go even further before expending the resources to develop a biosphere anywhere.

    Gary, I look forward to seeing your thoughts.

  • JohnHunt on March 18, 2012 9:28 pm

    Let me point out that there are only about 4,260 species of mammals extant today. If (I recognize it is a big if) we could get 4,260 x 10 frozen embryos and 1,000 swabs per species, it would only be 7/10th of 1% of a single payload to have backup samples of all known mammals. So a decent amount of the biosphere could be backed up.

  • JohnHunt on March 18, 2012 11:14 pm

    I’ve done some more calculating. There are about 950,000 scientifically known species in all phyla excluding insects. IF we were to allow 1,000 swabs for each species and 2mm^2 wells for each swab sample, then all of those species could fit in one and a half 5,000 kg payloads. The remaining half payload could be reserved for samples from insects. However, given the enormity of the insecta phylum, we could only have about 1/40th of the insects represented.

  • TB on March 19, 2012 10:37 am

    How about a fleet of giant spaceships with biodomes attached all over them and some cute little robots to take care of them? You can throw in an unbalanced civil service employee if you want.

  • Mark on March 19, 2012 11:06 am

    uh, isn’t there a problem with solar radiation? And your backup might need a backup if some projectile happens to strike your moon location after some period of time. I don’t know what period of time is envisioned for this backup, but if it is more than 20,000 years (depending on species) the backup won’t reflect the earthly evolution that occurs in the meantime.

  • Mark on March 19, 2012 11:15 am

    Also see the Svalbard Global Seed Vault and Millennium Seed Bank Project and the Global Crop Diversity Trust.

  • ken anthony on March 19, 2012 11:47 am

    That Dern unbalanced civil service employee! Do those cute robots cheat at poker?

    This seems like a knowledge problem where a single authority is very likely to get things wrong. Instead, have a living backup where individuals choose what to bring. In just a few years we will be capable of starting such a backup on mars with 144 million sq. km. of real estate available to pay the entire cost.

  • mikee on March 19, 2012 11:51 am

    TB, I saw the movie version of your idea in the 1970s, it was called Silent Running. Bruce Dern and his robots will save the plants for us! Well, some of the plants, anyway.…

  • will on March 19, 2012 12:08 pm

    The earth has no problem rebooting itself after catastrophe’s that wipe out huge percentages of life on this planet. You could blow up every nuclear device on the planet and while mankind would not survive, in a million years or so the Earth would never know the difference. Life will fill niches, flourish and grow. It’s presumptive to assume that the way life is currently on the planet is ideal or the way things “should” be. Given the momentum built up for our own self-destruction it’s probable that humans will not survive.

  • MBM on March 19, 2012 12:16 pm

    “The question ‘what species should we choose’ is an interesting one.”

    I suggest some “green alligators and long-necked geese. Some humpty backed camels and some chimpanzees”


  • JohnHunt on March 19, 2012 3:22 pm

    Mark, I mentioned storage under regolith in a permanently shadowed crater so solar radiation is not a problem. Good point about the back-Up needing a backup. Two things, being underground, that would protect the preserve against small meteorites. But since the preserve would have numerous DNA swabs and multiple “seeds” then it should be packaged in such a way that it could be separated into two identical parts which would be stored at different locations. I would imagine the population from the surviving colony using the backup to start a new biosphere when they become numerous enough to have enough people to be dedicated to working on the project. So, something like 200–300 years. The backup would only need to be used if the Earth’s biosphere were destroyed. So, evolutionary change is irrelevant. Thanks for those links.

    Will, don’t let historic events close your eyes to novel possibilities. For example, never has Earth been destroyed by a self-replicating chemical consuming all atmospheric CO2 until completion. Everything above algae would be destroyed. Nor has it seen a virus intelligently designed to be maximally lethal. Nor any nanobot.

  • Rlynh on March 19, 2012 3:24 pm

    I believe, regarding fauna, the first efforts should be toward preserving those species most vital to humans: pollinating insects and domestic animals (and I include the apparently necessary to mental health pets), and only then begin concentrating on the rest of the biosphere. It’s probably not possible to save every species, but that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, so I would concentrate on those species most valuable to humans (in the physical sense, not the emotional — except for pets, so sue me).

    As for gestating them on other worlds (I presume you would look at Mars next), when we get around to doing this, surely we will have some way to gestate species artificially. Otherwise, we’ll have to spend the big bucks to transport some adults of each species we mean to save.

    The real question is, how will they evolve on other planets?

  • Bozo the Clone on March 19, 2012 3:55 pm

    A Moon colony is an intriguing idea, and should be done. Do keep in mind that the earliest versions of Moon bases will not be able to exploit in situ resources in any major way. Living mostly off Lunar resources will not happen until probably Phase III of a Lunar settlement effort.

    Propagating Life beyond Earth will likely take very different forms than we now envision.

  • GaryChurch on March 19, 2012 7:49 pm

    “It’s presumptive to assume that the way life is currently on the planet is ideal or the way things “should” be. Given the momentum built up for our own self-destruction it’s probable that humans will not survive.”

    Fine will, you go ahead and die then. I would rather not go silently into the night thank you.

  • JohnHunt on March 20, 2012 12:36 am

    Rlynh > except for pets, so sue me)

    Yes. Sue me too! I hope that we would be able to find a way around having to maintain a zoo of live animals so that female adults can gestate frozen embryos of their and maybe very close species. That would take too much work and payload. But a space dog and cat…I’d hope we could find room for them.

    > I believe, regarding fauna, the first efforts should be toward preserving those species most vital to humans

    Certainly yes, but starting to obtain samples of DNA for frozen storage isn’t something that needs to wait for years to get around to doing. I am imagining a project with many, many biologic departments signing up to obtain swab DNA samples of their local species and then mailing those samples to a central processing facility. It is something which should be done for many purposes not just a lunar biopreserve.

    > It’s probably not possible to save every species, but that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things

    I would agree but from my previous comment, payload mass isn’t the limiting factor. Except for insects, there may be enough space for all species within a couple of 5,000 kg payload deliveries.

    > Mars next)…surely we will have some way to gestate species artificially.

    I personally think that, within reasonable budgets, we could achieve a small (e.g. 6-person) lunar colony with a biopreserve in about 15 years. If we can overcome the radiation exposure during travel problem, then I think that a similar Mars colony could be established within 10 years after that. I don’t know if we’ll be able to artificially gestate any species within 25 years. I’m guessing that that would be a bit too early.

    > Otherwise, we’ll have to spend the big bucks to transport some adults of each species we mean to save.

    Well, actually female babies of many species. Still, that would be an unreasonable amount of mass.

    > The real question is, how will they evolve on other planets?

    I don’t really care. Get them to survive first and then let any genetic variation within populations take its own path.

    Bozo > the earliest versions of Moon bases will not be able to exploit in situ resources in any major way.

    LCROSS showed that something like 5% of permanently shadowed regolith is ice. The Peaks of Eternal Light are near those permanently shadowed areas. If you’ve within reach of ice, why wouldn’t you distill it, drink it, break it into oxygen and breath it, and use it to irrigate plants? Why wait to do that? Why not even doing that in a precursor telerobotic phase in preparation for manned return?

    > I would rather not go silently into the night thank you.

    Absolutely agree. However, I think that we need to first ensure that some humans survive and continue the species. After achieving that, then we can think about transporting large numbers off-Earth so that we as individuals and our families can be safe. But first, we need at least a few to be able to survive. I believe that a small colony at a lunar pole is the least expensive, earliest achievable off-Earth place to achieve that.

  • GaryChurch on March 20, 2012 5:36 pm

    ” I believe that a small colony at a lunar pole is the least expensive, ”

    Any presumption or prerequisite that is “cheap” has already failed.
    There is no cheap.

  • Marcus Barber on March 21, 2012 10:51 pm

    I have sitting on my bench a small jar of ‘sea monkeys’ that I have been asked to look after. The owner tells me that the colony ‘collapses’ about every four months or so and then after a couple of weeks, re-emerges. I’ve got them at the re-emerging stage.

    Which got me thinking. In lake Eyre in Australia there’s a veritable truckload of species that lay dormant for multiple decades awaiting the very rare rain fall that fills the lake. Currently it’s ‘full’ for just the third time in over a century and second time in two years — very rare event. From a species perspective, the place is going off.

    So for invertebrates to add to the plant seeds and pods, we’d probably need to look at those species that can survive extreme periods of dormancy and hope that we can give them a kick off before the clock finally arises.

    In fact Australia being the oldest landmass on the planet, is probably a good spot to start collections for it might be anticipated that the home species have had long periods of adjusting to decades without rain followed by short bursts of mass flooding.

  • JohnHunt on March 21, 2012 11:31 pm

    > There is no cheap.

    Depends upon the definition of cheap. If that is an absolute term then yes, even a million bucks is more than I’ve got in my bank account. If it is a relative term then there’s cheaper. For example, $/kg payload to LEO is cheaper on a Chinese rocket than the Space Shuttle.

    When I say “least expensive” that is a relative term in that a lunar colony would be the least expensive of the four:
    — than a LEO colony because the transportation costs of water, oxygen, and regolith will be less (because they’re already there),
    — than a Martian colony because teleoperated robots can develop the base prior to humans landing and because a lunar ice can provide water and hence the oxygen needed for propellant for bootstrapping, orbital, and BEO servicing,
    — than an asteroid because of teleoperations and equipment being tied up with much longer transportation times.

    The Spudis-Lavoie Plan is likely cheaper than Constellation. I think that there are yet cheaper architectures than that.

  • JohnHunt on March 22, 2012 2:21 pm

    Marcus, those species that you mention are specifically designed to remain dormant at warm temperatures and dry conditions. By using ultra cold temperatures on organisms in their single or few-cell stage, we can provide that dormant state artificially. Given this ability I would think it best to not concentrate on just a few species but rather establish the collaborative network which can start collecting a broad spectrum of species.

  • Marcus Barber on March 22, 2012 6:43 pm

    Agreed John — what I’m saying is that we may also need to be smart about what we select. We may be unlikely to save all species, so perhaps our decision filtering criteria may need to include those that will be best able to survive long periods of inactivity and development.

    Do we yet know what those species might be? have we tested our ability to bring back from frozen status, partially developed celluar beings? If we are rebooting the biosphere do we need to consider the idea that there would no longer be anything that could be classified as an ‘introduced species’ in the way we do now as ALL of them would be introduced species.
    Marcus :-)

  • JohnHunt on March 22, 2012 9:56 pm

    > we may also need to be smart about what we select.

    Likely this will be true. I would be inclined to let the professional biologists come up with a rank list of those species which are most important.

    Perhaps, at the top of the list would be those species which humans need to survive (e.g. rice and beans). Next would probably be those species which are fundamental to other species (e.g. algae, a grass, a fruit tree, flowers for this or that category of animal, bees, rabbits for predators, yeast for B-12 dependent species, etc). This list wouldn’t necessarily be infinite. One type of grass can feed many types of grazers.

    Then there would probably be a level of species which would be representative of whole classes (or some such level). Next might be a level of those species which are numerous in order to give the general impression that the biomes are filled. Next might come a careful choosing of animal species which might be closely enough related to others to allow some future biomedical development where one animal can gestate that of another species. At some level might be species which can conveniently be collected and stored (such as frozen bacteria as opposed to a coconut seed). And then, as time is running out before the launch, there might be a mad dash just to get swabs of DNA of even geographically close individuals of a species.

    Regarding insects, especially beetles, they are just too numerous. One would have to choose examples representative of the diversity and leave the others behind. The result would be a half-way decent representation of the biosphere without necessarily having a full representation of the whole biosphere.

    I would think that the real error would be not having samples of species that we don’t know about. It may be that there is some single-celled organism which produces a chemical (e.g. like a vitamin or phytochemical) which other species are dependent upon.

    I personally don’t think that the natural ability to survive long periods of inactivity makes much of a difference. When a cell is frozen at liquid nitrogen temperatures, it really doesn’t matter how long they are stored (a hour or 500 years). With no thermal movement there would probably be no difference.

    > have we tested our ability to bring back from frozen status, partially developed celluar beings?

    I don’t know the answer to this as this is not my field. My gut feeling is that when an organism is down in it’s single cell form (all individuals have to go through this, correct?) then they can be frozen (with cryoprotectant) and revived easily enough unless their single cell form has associated packaging which would break with freezing such as a bird’s egg. The other problem are those (like humans) which can be easily frozen and revived in our single-cell stage yet need an adult mother to gestate. You may have to have females surviving sequentially in order to eventually gestate the frozen eggs. But I think that a zoo those animals closely enough related to all of the others in their genus would be practically impossible to maintain in a small colony. I hope that someone has a workable solution.