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I've been thinking through the feasibility of a species; I won't give a ton of details since it's all pretty fluid at the moment.

The big thing I'm curious about is whether their bodies having a native ability to edit their genes would help them (most likely it would affect their offspring more than themselves). I imagine there are a ton of different applications, so I'm going to limit this specifically to their exploration of space. In what ways would the ability to completely rewrite the genetic makeup of one's offspring help in the exploration of space?

The best answer will:

  • Consider the implications on both interplanetary and interstellar exploration
  • List specific traits that would be most useful (no need to actually reference genetics; it would probably be nothing like how our DNA works in technical terms)
  • Avoid questioning the feasibility of such gene-editing capabilities; I don't care whether it's actually possible, just what the results would be if it is

As I said, I have very few plans for the species, so make free with anything you like; I have yet to even plan any stories using them until I work out the details.

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    $\begingroup$ This seems to be one of those massively broad idea-generating questions asking for an infinite list of things. Please edit it down to a single clearly constrained question. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 15:23
  • $\begingroup$ @ARogueAnt. I thought long and hard about that. I also thought it might be a high concept question. However, as I thought about it, the answer IMO had to be so minimalist to make a believable (aka "non-magical") story that I could answer without asking the OP to more tightly scope the question. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 15:32
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    $\begingroup$ However, Ben, I hope you understand what @ARogueAnt. and I are talking about. Idea-generation questions (aka "fishing for ideas") don't generally work well here. Stack Exchange is designed to give specific answers to specific questions. We accommodate them (see finite list of things) but where you can, please favor asking specific questions. Thanks! $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ We already naturally "edit" our genes randomly through various processes of mutation. That it occurs slowly is necessary, much more quickly and we might not still exist. Thus gene editing requires the ability to do it non-randomly. That requires a theory of genetics. Anything else risks extinction. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 15:38
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    $\begingroup$ I have voted to reopen. These questions may be related, but one asks what modifications, the other asks can those modifications be done via genetic engineering. Clearly these aren't duplicates. $\endgroup$
    – John O
    Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 19:34

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Less than you might think...

If I ignore the natural question of "what are the limits of your gene-editing ability?" (there must be limits, there are always limits, but let's throw that to the wind right now), then I'm still forced to conclude that the benefits would be superficial.

DNA isn't magic. It won't, for example, remove the basic building blocks of life. A solvent is needed to keep things flowing, and solvents freeze somewhere below room temperature. A reactant is needed to keep the biological fires burning, and it can't be removed. In other words, you could adjust DNA to protect water from freezing to an extent and to reduce the body's dependency on oxygen to an extent, but how much would that really affect space travel?

Space can be thought of as the antithesis of life. It is either devoid of what creatures in our experience need to live or has a deadly over abundance of such resources. So, what could you do?

  • You could improve bones and muscles to better withstand high acceleration.
  • You could improve skin and eyes to better withstand radiation.
  • You could improve ears and lungs to better deal with lower air pressure.

Etc. But what value does this really have?

Almost none

  1. The creature you produce for the sake of space travel may not be capable of standing or living on any planet.

  2. Your premise depends not only on the ability to modify genes — but to understand why and how to modify those genes. That's a tough nut to swallow, because the ability would, until what we'd call "advanced science" was developed, be totally reactive, meaning the changes would come about as a reaction to circumstances, not as a plan for fairly unknown circumstances. Despite what little we know today about gene editing, we nevertheless have lengthy conversations about the ethics of doing so. Your creatures would have worked out societal mores for the same reasons. Some changes would be very much a taboo (ignoring the limitations).

  3. There's only so much change you can make to a living creature. Unless stated as a rule of your world (in which case this question becomes moot), you can't change an elephant into a bird — the structural differences between the two creatures and the mental/brain differences between the two creatures is, IMO, simply too significant to accomplish. At that point you might as well say your creatures are Star Trek DS9 changelings with the limitation that the change must occur generation-to-generation rather than instantaneously.

Conclusion

A list of problems with space travel would be simple to find. Come up with it, and then ask yourself, "what's the smallest genetic change that would be beneficial to each of those problems?" That would be a practical answer that reflected the nature of evolution and life while accommodating your world rule.

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks, that conclusion is really useful. Excellent point about wanting to change the minimum possible. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 15:35
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The ability to imagine a desired end result does not translate to the ability to produce a desired end result.

At least, not when we're talking about genetics.

You've been hornswoggled all your life. You've grown up in a civiliztaion that has metallurgy, plastics, and chemicals. And for the first two of those thing, if you can imagine a thing's shape or properties, that thing can be manufactured. And for the third, it's still somewhat true (though not always, and it's tricky even when it is).

But with genetics, the ability to imagine a lifeform means nothing. What DNA sequence encodes that species, and what cellular machinery do you even need to build it from that DNA? On the latter part, you can just hand-wave it away with "the typical cellular machinery found in mammals"... but the former part is a mystery.

For instance, let's keep it simple. You want to grow a baboon like any other, except that this one will have a third arm growing out of the back of its head (left-handed, right-handed, doesn't matter). We know that this is possible. But there's no single gene (fragment or whole) that will cause it (probably). There is no small set of genes that will do it. There may not be any at all, in fact... when such congenital defects do occur, some of them aren't written in the DNA. A "construction malfunction" occurred at a very particular time in fetal development, and it could have gone a million different ways.

And there's no DNA software that let's you just write code to cause such a malfunction that does that right at that particular moment in time (even if you knew which moment it had to be).

Compare this to metallurgy. If you tell us you need a dodecahedron made out of a titanium alloy that is hollow, has walls 1.2cm thick, with safe-beveled edges, someone can make that. Complicated shapes can get tricky and expensive, but no one will tell you that it can't be done.

So even if your creatures can imagine their offspring need pressure-suit strong skin, sealable lungs, and hard-surface eyeballs, being able to spit out an arbitrary sequence of codons won't help them do that.

If a biology did evolve some natural way to change its own genes arbitrarily, the most useful application might be to encode memory into genes. If your offspring is born knowing all the things you know, remembering how to solve that life-or-death puzzle grandpa encountered 253 years ago, that has survival value. Being able to trial-and-error your away around genetics sounds like a recipe for disaster. Especially for things that operate at the speed of a sophont.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, you're right, being able to pass on memory would probably be a useful trait, especially with the level of specialized knowledge gene-altering might require. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 15:56
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    $\begingroup$ "no single gene (fragment or whole) that will cause it (probably)." - probably is not required here, it 100% , for the example u mentiont, and for any evolved creature for situation to pop a thing which is out of typical or rudimentary and anything out of place of its ontogenesis. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 17:21
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  1. Lower food and water requirements for space. If you're in space the lack of gravity means you need less resources to live, so you can have lower resource expending bodies. The rocket equation means anywhere you can save mass is a massive benefit to you.

  2. Boost intelligence to better manage problems and crisis, and boost manual dexterity for tools.

  3. Naturally grow some common space stuff, like stuff to convert CO2 to O2, or clothes. Bodies make a useful biological factory.

  4. Reduce loneliness in astronauts so they can tolerate longer trips.

  5. Improved anti cancer bodies to handle stellar radiation.

  6. Some sort of solar converter to generate food and sugar from sunlight.

  7. Extensive alterations to enzyme chains to allow you to synthesize most useful materials from carbon hydrogen oxygen calcium, nitrogen, phosphorus, and a smattering of rarer elements without needing precise compounds like vitamin C.

  8. Adaption to local planet environments. Mars, for example, is a lot like Antarctica. If you have a naturally pressured body and resistance to cold, you can probably go outside with thick clothing for a while. Venus has a warm environment above the clouds with quite a few toxins. If you can be acid resistant you can probably float outside for a bit. Equipment will still be vital, but you can make it easier.

  9. Hibernation, to conserve resources on long trips.

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Without incredibly advanced knowledge of biology and genetics, not at all.

Do you mess about with the workings of your computer's operating system, or inside the engine of your car, trying different things to improve them? No - those systems have been built and refined for a specific purpose for which they are reasonably optimized. Having the ability to make a change to the system does not in any way imply that you have the knowledge of how to change the system to improve it. Rewriting your own genetic code will result in improvement only in very rare cases - for the most part, you'll just be destroying genetic code that your body needs, resulting in genetic disease or even death.

I wouldn't edit the source code of my computer's operating system, because I would very likely break it and would be astronomically unlikely to improve it in any way. I would be even more loath to edit my own genetic code, since the consequences are difficult to predict and may well be irreversible, injurious or even lethal.

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    $\begingroup$ Hee... I'm someone who does edit the source code of my OS, but point taken. There is a lot to be said for trial and error, though, (it's a major part of how I learned to code) and I thought that with a simplified genetic system more suited to the purpose, it's a plausible enough concept to trigger suspension of disbelief. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 14, 2021 at 17:54
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Leaving your homeworld requires cooperativity and surplus resources.

Maybe your species is already this way. Let us say they are like humans because you have to start somewhere. How should they be to explore space?

1: They are unaggressive, and so do not waste time fighting with and scheming against their conspecifics.

2: They are cooperative with one another. This lets them accumulate resources and also cooperate in the spacefaring endeavor.

3: Their bodies are small, because the cooperativity means they can store resources externally and do not need to store them in their bodies.

4: Some and only some are intelligent. I fear that intraspecies competition is what gives rise to intelligence. If you are an ant you don't need to be smart. In this species there is an intelligent caste. They are nonsexual. They do the thinking for the group.


A problem with these engineered space explorers is if there are others of their species in a neighboring country that are not engineered. These neighbors are larger, and aggressive, and clever. They will show up and take the surplus from your prospective spacefarers. These others need to be contained, or co-opted, or eradicated.

I like the story from the perspective of that other country, after they have taken over the group that engineered themselves. Those little space folks make great slaves. And the smart ones can be a big help.

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