Metabolism as Technology

Rachel Armstrong

This essay is an excerpt of New Geographies 11: Extraterrestrial by Jeffrey S. Nesbit and Guy Trangoš.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky observed that the “problem” of biology, rather than engineering challenges, would be key to settling spaces beyond the Earth.[1] Drawing on Bruno Latour’s notions of Earthbound [2] and geostory [3][4] I investigate the potential for terrestrial life on alien worlds and the planetary-scale forces that travelers, settlers, and colonists will need to overcome to achieve this aim. Providing an alternative reading of life in space than the present inescapably anthropocentric and terrestrial view of reality, alternative scenarios—such as directed panspermia and the Living Architecture project, which involve spatially and temporally “programming” the metabolism of microbes using a range of technological apparatuses from bioreactors to space probes—are proposed that engage with the physics, chemistry, and potential life-forms that may render space a fertile terrain for alternative kinds of life and modes of inhabitation.

To begin at the end, our Sun, which nurtures life on Earth, runs out of nuclear fuel within the next five billion years—but long before this, our world will be uninhabitable. Stephen Hawking predicted that, given the substantial increase in frequency and intensity of various climate extremes in recent decades due to global warming, our world is unlikely to sustain us for longer than one thousand years. Even if we are able to turn around the malignant forms of industrialization and natural-resource consumption that stoke our present ecological crisis, the Laboratory for Dynamic Meteorology in Paris suggests that we have around a billion years before our world is no longer viable. The critical question here is not simply the fate of humanity but the deep future of terrestrial life. At some point —in the near or longer term —we will have to find another habitable planet if we value life on this world enough to find a way to survive,[5] but in settling extraterrestrial realms, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s observation needs to be heeded —that the “problem” of biology must be “overcome.”[6] In so doing, it is pertinent to consider the present state of the art in off-world life support. The International Space Station is a “machine” that, since 2000, has enabled a varying community of people to live and conduct experiments in low Earth orbit, 400 km above the surface of the planet. Despite providing protection from the vacuum of space, it requires a constant supply of terrestrial resources and cannot fully preserve human biology owing to environmental perturbations such as microgravity, altered circadian rhythms, and radiation, which produce measurable, cumulative effects on the human body like changes in bone density, visual impairment, neurological syndromes, and alterations in gene expression.[7] While the human inhabitation of space is a very different kind of challenge than dwelling on Earth, we nevertheless transpose our known principles of terrestrial settlement and geostory, “as if” we were inhabiting a life-bearing planet, because this is what we understand works.

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[1] Freeman Dyson, “The Green Universe: A Vision,” New York Review of Books, October 13, 2016, https://www.nybooks.com/articles/2016/10/13/green-universea-vision/.
[2] Earthbound highlights our attachment to the Earth beyond the terrestrial soils, which give rise to the words “humus” and “human.”
[3] Geostory offers a nonhuman narrative of the fabrics of our planet.
[4] Bruno Latour, “Once out of Nature: Natural Religion as a Pleonasm,” Gifford Lecture, University of Edinburgh, 2013, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MC3E6vdQEzk.
[5] Our present search for exoplanets aims to characterize planetary systems and Earthlike planets around nearby stars. As we move from an era of detecting exoplanets to one of characterizing them, we are looking for signs of possible extant life, as well as identifying worlds that are similar to ours. Specifically, we are looking for an “Earth 2.0,” where future terrestrial settlements may be established. These habitable zones are defined according to our understanding of biological terrestrial life and do not include unusual or alien life-forms, as these are not known to us. Therefore, we do not consider habitable zones in interstellar clouds or the vacuum of space, as this does not help us narrow down our search for life elsewhere, within what is already an effectively infinite terrain.
  [6] Dyson, “The Green Universe: A Vision.”
[7] Nadia Drake, “No, Scott Kelly’s Year in Space Didn’t Mutate His DNA,” National Geographic, March 15, 2018, https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/scottkelly-astronaut-space-station-dna-healthscience/.
[8] Here, the term “constant” is used in its scientific context, where the effects of these variables do not change during an experiment.
[9] Naser Odeh, Nikolas Hill, and Daniel Forster, “Current and Future Lifecycle Emissions of Key ‘Low Carbon’ Technologies and Alternatives,” Committee on Climate Change, April 17, 2013, https://www. theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/ Ricardo-AEA-lifecycle-emissions-low-carbon-technologies-April-2013.pdf.
[10] Umair Haque, “The Age of Collapse: Why Everything’s Collapsing and What to Do about It,” Eudaimonia, January 24, 2019, https://eand.co/the-age-of-collapsee606bfc1b46d.
[11] The term “worlding” originates from Heidegger’s notion of being-in-the-world, which involves both the process of experiencing reality (inhabiting) and making reality (constructing), thereby setting in motion a global-scale choreography of lively, material events that provide alternative trajectories for human development (Michael Wheeler, “Martin Heidegger. 2.2.3, Being-in-the-World,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, October 12, 2011, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/heidegger/). In this context, worlding is used to denote an entanglement of processes that are orchestrated through the process of inhabitation, or “dwelling.” Going beyond the simplistic perspectives of top-down or bottom-up notions of design and control by introducing the properties of matter, contingent events, and context, “worlding” does not de-problematize the complex relationships between possibility, intent, and desire.
[12] Rachel Armstrong, Star Ark: A Living, Self-Sustaining Space Ship (Chichester, UK: Springer/Praxis, 2015).
[13] A terrarium is sometimes called an “ecosystem in a bottle.”
[14] Jeffrey P. Cohn, “Biosphere 2: Turning an Experiment into a Research Station,” BioScience 52, no. 3 (2002): 218–223, https://doi. org/10.1641/0006-3568(2002)052[0218:BTAEIA]2.0.CO;2.
[15] Jayne Poynter, The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes inside Biosphere 2 (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2006).
[16] Victor de Lorenzo, “It’s the Metabolism, Stupid!” Environmental Microbiology Reports 7, no. 1 (2015): 18–19, https://doi. org/10.1111/1758-2229.12223.
  [17] Ben McFarland, A World from Dust: How the Periodic Table Shaped Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
[18] De Lorenzo, “It’s the Metabolism, Stupid!”
[19] Victor de Lorenzo, “From the Selfish Gene to Selfish Metabolism: Revisiting the Central Dogma,” Bioessays 36, no. 3 (2014): 226, doi:10.1002/bies.201300153.
[20] Diane R. Hitchcock and James E. Lovelock, “Life Detection by Atmospheric Analysis,” Icarus 7, nos. 1–3 (1966):149– 159, https://doi.org/10.1016/00191035(67)90059-0.
[21] James E. Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, “Atmospheric Homeostasis by and for the Biosphere: The Gaia Hypothesis,” Tellus 26 (1974): 1–10, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.2153-3490.1974.tb01946.x; Lynn Margulis and James E. Lovelock, “Biological Modulation of the Earth’s Atmosphere,” Icarus 21 (1974): 471–489, https://doi.org/10.1016/00191035(74)90150-X; John F. Stolz, “Gaia and Her Microbes,” FEMS Microbial Ecology 93, no. 2 (2016): 1–13, doi:10.1093/ femsec/fiw247.
[22] Kenneth J. Locey and Jay T. Lennon, “Scaling Laws Predict Global Microbial Diversity,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 11, no.3 (2016): 5970–5975, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1521291113.
[23] William B. Whitman, David C. Coleman, and William J. Wiebe, “Prokayrotes: The Unseen Majority,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 95 (1998): 6578–6583, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.95.12.6578; Sean McMahon and John Parnell, “Weighing the Deep Continental Biosphere,” FEMS Microbiology Ecology 87 (2014): 113–120, https://doi.org/10.1111/1574-6941.12196.
  [24] This was “a complex entity involving the Earth’s biosphere, atmosphere, oceans, and soil . . . constituting a feedback or cybernetic system which seeks an optimal physical and chemical environment for life” (Lovelock and Margulis, “Atmospheric Homeostasis by and for the  Biosphere: The Gaia Hypothesis”).
[25] Christian Orlic, “The Origins of Directed Panspermia” (guest blog), Scientific American, January 9, 2013, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-origins-of-directed-panspermia/.
[26] Michael Noah Mautner and Gregory L. Matloff, “Directed Panspermia: A Technical and Ethical Evaluation of Seeding Nearby Solar Systems,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 32 (1979): 419–423.
[27] Lisa Zyga, “Professor: We Have a ‘Moral Obligation’ to Seed Universe with Life,” Phys.Org, February 9, 2010, https://phys.org/news/2010-02-professor-moral-obligation-seed-universe.html#jCp.
[28] This curation is not without rebellion, as Victor de Lorenzo noted, and refers to an ongoing negotiation between willful bodies, which may be human or not. For a specific outcome to be achieved, this negotiation is ongoing, never final, and may be understood as a “lived” engagement between participants who have a specific stake in the outcome.
[29] The Living Architecture project is funded by the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme under EU Grant Agreement no. 686585. It brings together experts from the universities of Newcastle, UK; the west of England (UWE Bristol); Trento, Italy; the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid; LIQUIFER Systems Group, Vienna, Austria; and Explora, Venice, Italy.
[30] Ioannis A. Ieropoulos, Andrew Stinchcombe, Iwona Gajda, Samuel Forbes, Irene Merino-Jimenez, Grzegorz Pasternak, Daniel Sanchez-Herranz, and John Greenman, “Pee Power Urinal: Microbial Fuel Cell Technology Field Trials in the Context of Sanitation,” Environmental Science: Water Research and Technology 2 (2016): 336–343, doi:10.1039/C5EW00270B.
[31] The long-term implication of open iterations, as opposed to a closed-loop system, is that they have the potential to evolve.
[32] Sylvia Thompson, “Living Architecture: Investigating the Interface between Biology and Architecture: A New Vision for Homes and Cities,” Irish Times, December 27, 2018, https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/living-architecture-investigating-the-interface-between-biology-and-architecture-a-new-vision-for-homes-and-cities-1.3733994.
[33] These include the internal microbiome as well as microbial metabolic technologies.
[34] Stephen C. Winans and Bonnie L. Bassler, Chemical Communication among Bacteria (Washington, DC: ASM Press, 2008).
[35] Our biological identity is problematic when it comes to embracing nonbiological life-forms, as they do not meet our present criteria for being truly “alive” and therefore raise problematic ethics with regard to how we should care for, relate to, and cherish them—particularly if their presence is contrary, or toxic, to our own. For example, in 2010 an organism GFAJ-1 was reported as having rewritten the recipe for DNA using arsenic, which disrupts the energy-producing molecule ATP, which is essential to biological life. These findings were later debunked but serve as an example to consider questions regarding our encounters with creatures whose existence and proximity may be lethal.
[36] There is no one approach or “solution” to settlement. This term applies equally to how we inhabit Earth during an age of widespread collapse, as much as it indicates our desire to inhabit other worlds and spaces beyond our own.
[37] The ethical implications of the colonial terrestrial imperative must not be overlooked. While advocates like Michael Mautner suggest an ethics for the community of life where the presence of “life” is good and its absence bad (Michael Noah Mautner, Seeding the Universe with Life [Christchurch, NZ: Legacy Books, 2004]), the nuances of our inescapably anthropocentric perspective must be appropriately critiqued. Even deeper ongoing questions about the nature of the question must be raised. Importantly, the nature of life itself must not be assumed, and we must consider, What does matter want? These discussions exceed the scope of this present essay.
[38] Russian cosmist Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov refused to accept the physical constraints of our planet as the limits to humanity and proposed that, through our reason and technology, we could “storm the heavens and conquer death” (Benedict Singleton, “Maximum Jailbreak,” Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 67 [2014]: 266–271). Attributing these constraints to the unruly forces of nature, he suggested its unpredictable character could be controlled by introducing will and reason into the natural realm, which would grant knowledge and control over all atoms and molecules of the world, which would in turn carve out a greater space for life.