I’ve mentioned more than once that Earth is a fragile place. Precarious would be an appropriate description of life here. Scientists believe there have been five mass extinctions of life forms over Earth’s history. The worst one took 96% of marine species and about 70% of land creatures. But species are going extinct all the time, and that sad state has only grown worse as humanity has grown more powerful. We also lose great numbers of crop species as plant breeding and genetic modification, along with the trend to giant corporate farms, drastically decreases the variety of our food crops being planted.
We could do a lot to prevent this just by cleaning up our act—producing less pollution and curtailing our ravenous appetite for the environments other species call home. It’s bad enough that living entities face danger from droughts and other weather fluctuations, predators, pests, and disease, without humans adding to the toll. There’s always the chance, too, that some large disaster will wipe out species on a vast scale. It could be a nuclear war, nanotechnology run amok, an asteroid strike, or even malicious action by an alien force from beyond our atmosphere, whether sentient or microscopic. Earth is still the only place in the universe that we know is home to living things, and that’s a heritage too precious to leave at risk.
There are many efforts to protect life forms here on Earth, including wildlife preserves and parks, but also many seed vaults and gene banks around the world. A reader of this blog named Mike reminded me of them, and has written on his own website about what is probably the most famous: the Svalbard International Seed Vault, a so-called "doomsday vault" on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway. There are upwards of 1400 seed vaults around the world, but other facilities preserve genetic material from both plants and animals, and sometimes actual specimens. Some of the very largest are in the UK, US, Russia, and India. All of these efforts are to be commended, yet since they’re all on Earth they still face risk from earthquakes, storms, floods, human conflict, and even rampant industrial development.
Isn’t it time we took a longer view and made efforts to preserve species from Earthbound hazards by creating real “offsite” storage sites—meaning off-planet? Whether on the frozen spaces of the Moon, in a hallowed-out asteroid, or even in the far reaches of the solar system like Pluto, there’d be no worries about weather, oxidation, or corruption by germs. With any luck, it’ll be a while before human conflicts get that far out, too. Yes, we’d have to protect the samples from cosmic radiation and possibly extremes of temperature, but that would mainly be a matter of picking the right sites. Of course, it will be even better when we can take actual living creatures beyond the Earth, but genetic samples are better than nothing.
Since I like to tie my science in with science fiction, I have to admit the scenario sparks my imagination too. Imagine the story potential of sending Earth life out into the void.
Survivors of a planet-wide holocaust could, of course, use the contents of the gene vaults to reproduce Earth life on a new colony world, or maybe even time travel to a prehistoric Earth and seed it with familiar species they know can survive there. Alternatively, they could try to rehabilitate the Earth in their present-day or at a key moment in the apocalypse that would prevent complete destruction.
By happenstance, the contents of one or more gene vaults might end up on another hospitable planet far away and eons in the future, and become exposed to the local environment in such a way that Earth life spontaneously regenerates.
A powerful being or beings might create a duplicate Earth for reasons of their own with a variety not seen in human history.
There are also endless “B” movie possibilities. Radiation, alien microbial life, or tampering by extraterrestrials could mutate our animals, insects, or plants into monstrous forms we wouldn’t recognize (until they suddenly appear in some remote outpost and start eating the crew!)
Invading aliens might use the genetic material to disguise themselves and infiltrate Earth without us ever being the wiser. At the very least, they could learn the most efficient ways of attacking us long before getting close enough to Earth to be detected.
Oops, those examples may have undermined my argument a little (especially the “B” movie ones), but the truth is that every life form is precious and deserving of preservation (OK, mosquitoes are on the borderline) and as the only species on Earth capable of doing anything about it, that task is up to us. Let’s not put it off until it’s too late.