We must prepare for interplanetary biosecurity
Earth must be ready to be invaded by other planets, scientists have warned, but the danger is not so long as intelligent and malicious aliens come to conquer us. Instead, the danger we face comes more in the form of microbes that could cause diseases to which we, and everything else on Earth, have no immunity. Likewise, we must be careful of our own organisms that hitchhike on space missions to threaten any life that may exist on the worlds we visit.
The idea of an interplanetary germ war goes back at least to HG Wells’ War of the Worlds. However, Dr Phill Cassey and Dr Andrew Woolnough of the University of Adelaide argue in BioSciences that it is time we moved it from the pages of science fiction to treat the issue as a serious concern.
“In addition to government-led space missions, the arrival of private companies such as SpaceX means that there are now more players in space exploration than ever before,” Cassey said. said in a statement. “We must act now to mitigate these risks. Risks that have a low probability of occurrence, but which can have extreme consequences, are at the heart of biosecurity management. Because when things are bad, they are really bad.
It is possible that the rest of the solar system is lifeless, with nothing to threaten us or be threatened. However, if there is life on (or in) Mars, Europe, or Enceladus, we are faced with what economists might consider the biggest externality problem of all time. If a country’s or company’s mission in space returned with a deadly virus (known as reverse contamination), the consequences would be felt by everyone. Yet currently the costs of prevention fall solely on those undertaking the mission, creating a huge financial incentive to cut corners on sterilization or containment of anything reported.
Likewise, if future commercial exploration of Mars carries terrestrial bacteria that end up moving local life forms (forward contamination) with them, the loss is for all of us, but the price of avoidance only comes back to us. explorers.
To illustrate the dangers, the authors point to how humans have spread organisms in some of the most remote and hostile places on Earth. They note that it is isolated ecosystems with little experience of the outside world – or in this case the solar system – that are most vulnerable to newcomers.
Australia, which has suffered from self-inflicted disasters such as the arrival of rabbits and toads, has many valuable lessons to teach the world about biosecurity, the authors say. “It is much cheaper to prevent biological contamination by implementing protocols on Earth than on Mars, for example,” Casey said.
Nevertheless, the International Space Research Committee on Planetary Protection has not yet drawn on the experience of invasion biologists, Australian or not, to ask who the expertise seems useful to them.