As humanity continues to expand its reach into space, scientists and entrepreneurs are exploring the possibility of human reproduction beyond Earth. Egbert Edelbroek, CEO of biotech startup SpaceBorn United, is pioneering the study of human reproduction in space. With plans to send a mini lab into low Earth orbit for in vitro fertilization (IVF), Edelbroek hopes to unlock the potential for future space settlements. However, before we can establish colonies on other planets, it is essential to understand the effects of space on the human reproductive system. This article delves into the advancements, challenges, and potential implications of reproduction in space.
1. Humanity’s Backup Plan:
Humanity’s long-term survival depends on becoming a multiplanetary species. As space tourism becomes a reality and the ambitions of billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos propel us further into the cosmos, it is crucial to consider a backup plan for our species. Edelbroek emphasizes the necessity of exploring human reproduction in space to ensure our future as a sustainable species.
2. Uncharted Territory:
Despite the increasing interest in space exploration and settlement, our understanding of how space affects reproduction is still in its infancy. A September 2021 report released by the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine highlights the lack of research on human reproduction in space. With long-term space exploration on the horizon, it is vital to address this knowledge gap.
3. The Fish that Began It All:
In 1994, eight Japanese medaka fish successfully developed from egg to hatchling aboard the space shuttle Columbia, proving that reproduction is possible in space. These fish appeared to behave normally upon their return to Earth. Their successful development offers a glimmer of hope regarding human reproduction away from our home planet.
4. Troubling Findings:
While early experiments on animals demonstrated successful reproduction in space, other studies have raised concerns. In 1983, pregnant rats spent five days on a Soviet satellite during their third trimester and experienced complications during labor and delivery. The weakened state of the rats resulted in atrophied uterine muscles and hindrances during delivery, leading to the death of pups in one litter. These findings suggest that space could present obstacles to successful human reproduction.
5. Isolating Each Step:
Edelbroek theorizes that the inconsistent results from previous experiments underscore the need to systematically analyze each step involved in the reproductive process. By isolating and studying variables such as lower gravity and radiation exposure, we can better understand their impact on reproduction. SpaceBorn United’s mini lab, the size of a shoebox, uses microfluidics to replicate conditions in space and monitor fertilization, embryo development, and the early stages of pregnancy.
6. Cryogenic Freezing for Earth Return:
After fertilization is complete, the embryos produced in the mini lab reach the blastocyst stage—a crucial period in which the cells form a hollow ball. At this point, the embryos are cryogenically frozen for their safe return to Earth. The ability to successfully freeze and preserve embryos generated in space is critical for future space settlements and the advancement of human reproduction technology.
The quest to understand human reproduction in space has far-reaching implications for the future of our species. The work of SpaceBorn United and similar initiatives holds promise in expanding our knowledge of reproduction beyond Earth. By systematically studying the effects of space on each stage of the reproductive process, we can pave the way for future space settlements and ensure the survival of humanity as a multiplanetary species. As we continue to explore the great unknown, we must prepare for the challenges and opportunities that space presents to reproduction.