What if we could spread life beyond Earth by sending robotic probes to habitable planets in our galaxy? This is the bold idea of Claudius Gros, a professor of theoretical physics at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. He calls his project the Genesis Project, and he argues that it is not only feasible, but also ethically desirable.
The Genesis Project is based on the assumption that there are many planets in the Milky Way that are suitable for hosting life, but have not yet developed it.
Gros calls these planets “transiently habitable”, meaning that they have the right conditions for life to emerge, such as liquid water, a stable climate and a protective atmosphere, but they lack the spark that would initiate the process of abiogenesis, or the origin of life from non-living matter.
Gros suggests that we could artificially create this spark by sending robotic probes to these planets, carrying a cargo of microorganisms, such as bacteria, algae and fungi.
These microorganisms would be genetically engineered to be compatible with the local environment and to kick-start a biosphere. The probes would also carry a library of genetic information that could be used to create more complex organisms in the future, such as plants and animals.
The goal of the Genesis Project is not to colonize these planets with human beings, but to enrich them with life and diversity. Gros believes that this would be a noble and altruistic act, as well as a scientific and cultural achievement.
He argues that life is a precious and rare phenomenon in the universe, and that we have a moral duty to preserve and propagate it. He also claims that the Genesis Project would not interfere with the natural evolution of life on these planets, but rather enhance it.
As Gros previously explained to Universe Today:
“The purpose of the Genesis project is to offer terrestrial life alternative evolutionary pathways on those exoplanets that are potentially habitable but yet lifeless… If you had good conditions, simple life can develop very fast, but complex life will have a hard time.
“At least on Earth, it took a very long time for complex life to arrive. The Cambrian Explosion only happened about 500 million years ago, roughly 4 billion years after Earth was formed. If we give planets the opportunity to fast forward evolution, we can give them the chance to have their own Cambrian Explosions.”
The Genesis Project is not without challenges and risks, however.
One of the main challenges is to identify the planets that are suitable for seeding life. Gros estimates that there are about 300 billion stars in the Milky Way, and that about 10% of them have planets in their habitable zones.
However, not all of these planets are transiently habitable, as some may already have life or may have lost their habitability due to various factors. Therefore, the probes would need to perform a detailed analysis of the planets before deciding whether to deploy their cargo or not.
Another challenge is to design the probes and the microorganisms that they would carry. The probes would need to be small, fast and autonomous, capable of traveling for thousands or millions of years across interstellar space and reaching their destinations safely.
The microorganisms would need to be resilient, adaptable and diverse, able to survive and thrive in different environments and to form complex ecosystems. Gros proposes to use synthetic biology and gene editing techniques to create these microorganisms, but acknowledges that this would require a lot of research and experimentation.
A third challenge is to address the ethical and social implications of the Genesis Project. Some people may object to the idea of interfering with other planets and potentially altering their natural history.
Some may also question the motives and intentions behind the project, and whether it is driven by curiosity, arrogance, hubris or worry about the possible consequences of introducing terrestrial life to other worlds, such as ecological disasters, conflicts or competition with native life forms (if they exist), or unintended evolutionary outcomes.
Gros acknowledges these concerns, but maintains that the Genesis Project is worth pursuing. He argues that spreading life is a noble goal that transcends national or personal interests, and that it would benefit both humanity and the universe.
Gros also asserts that the Genesis Project is compatible with the principle of non-interference, as it would only target planets that are devoid of life or have very simple life forms.
He suggests that the Genesis Project could foster a sense of global cooperation and responsibility among humans, as well as a deeper appreciation for the diversity and value of life.
Planetologist Claudius Gros believes that humanity has the potential and the opportunity to become a “life-giving” civilization, and that this would be a worthy legacy for our species.