When we ponder the explorations humanity will embark on in the next century we typically envision journeys to the depths of the oceans, to other planets, or to different time periods. But what if the next big human exploration is an inward journey to understand our own biology, how it evolves, how it responds to our environment, and how this all leads to health or disease? This type of exploration won’t take place in a submarine or a space shuttle, but in virtual reality environments where data and its connections are shown to you in an intuitive manner. And the algorithms that build these simulated environments won’t be generic or imagined, they will be based on your personalized scientific data and will tell you things far beyond your intuition. The collection of this individualized data will be possible in the next few decades, but its interpretation will be severely limited by our cognitive framework for understanding complex systems. However, help may come from an unexpected place – the exploration of outer space.

As humans begin to live in deep space for long periods of time, maintaining health will be a major challenge to overcome. The need for remote medicine technologies will create huge advances in integrated biofeedback and on-demand treatments. These new tools will enable us to observe the health impacts of space travel with unprecedented resolution, revealing effects we would have never anticipated. These health differences will not be explainable within current cognitive frameworks, which are deeply biased by our Earth-centric perspective.

New frameworks will be created to encompass these cosmic observations, and it will greatly broaden our understanding of human health both in space and terrestrially. Furthermore, these new tools, in conjunction with the extremely controlled environment of spacecraft, will reveal remarkable and unbreakable links between our environment and our health. Previously, linking human health to the environment was a complex challenge due to the incomprehensible number of variables. But in spacecraft, variables such as diet, light cycles, temperature and air quality are carefully controlled, monitored and documented. This data, in combination with the constant measurement of physiological parameters, can help align the pieces of the health puzzle.

We will be able to take these new understandings and tools and use them to consciously engineer our biology and our environment. We will undoubtedly start by trying to reduce aging and disease. In one version of this story we engineer drugs, our bodies, and sterile environments with a disrespect for the wisdom of evolutionary time. This is a slippery slope towards endless bioreactors, sanitized nature, and the disregard for species, all in the name of life extension. If you follow this trajectory to its extreme end we will have dampened out all the troublesome peaks and valleys of life. With the trials and tribulations of life seemingly gone, we might also realize that the wave energy has been extracted from the ocean with none left to surf; all the wind has flowed into batteries with none left to sail; and all Type 2 and Type 3 fun litigated away.

In a different version of the story we quickly realize engineering the world in this manner is too inefficient, shortsighted, and doesn’t leave us much to be ‘healthy’ for. Instead we choose to focus our technological energy on preserving and expanding biodiversity. We use our tools to finetune homeostasis within our ecosystems, and realize this is the most efficient manner to live optimized and healthy lives. Embracing nature’s complexity by choosing to study it and understand it, and realize how we are part of it, instead of just trying to control or commoditize it. Our desire to explore is innate, and the journey should be about the search for knowledge, not about conquering the destination. 

Chris Hinojosa

Bioengineer Chris Hinojosa is the Vice President of Platform Development at Emulate Inc, which creates living platforms that emulate the complexities of human biology.

The next great exploration is our own biology

© Vollebak 2020

Founded in 2016, Vollebak uses science and technology to make the future of clothing happen faster. In our first four years we’ve made the world’s first Graphene Jacket using the only material in the world with a Nobel Prize, released 100 Year clothing designed to outlive you, created a Plant and Algae T Shirt grown in forests and bioreactors that turns into worm food, and designed the first jacket for deep space travel. You can find out more about us at vollebak.com.

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