For hundreds of years science fiction has predicted future technological developments. Leonardo de Vinci envisioned the submarine and the helicopter 400 years before scientific advancement made them a reality. Writers in the 1940s predicted cloning and sixty years later it too became a reality. The truth is that many things once thought impossible have become real. It seems that if some person dreams it someone else makes it real.
Is it possible to genetically engineer the Druid Tree of Life form; is it possible to create a human plant. While it hasn’t actually been done, the theoretical process necessary to create a human plant is well understood.
Three Steps to a Human Tree
The major difference between plants and animals is that plants contain chloroplasts and animals do not. Chloroplasts allow a plant to conduct photosynthesis—change light into food. So the first major step is injecting a chloroplast into an embryo and coaxing it to divide as the cell divides. This would give a human ability to generate energy from the sun.
The next task is creating a means to turn the energy created by photosynthesis into a form usable by the human cell. Plants produce the enzyme rubisco which converts carbon dioxide into sugar. Because animals and plants diverged so long ago human DNA does not have the gene necessary for this conversion to take place. The second step to creating a human plant is to splice the necessary chromosomes into human DNA.
The final hurdle is caused by the diffuse nature of light. Plants have a large surface area relative to their volume because they need a lot of light for photosynthesis to take place. Plants, such as cacti, which have a relatively small proportion of surface area to volume live in direct sunlight and even then grow very slowly. In order to create enough energy for basic life functions (like walking) human DNA would need to be engineered to grow long chloroplast filled hair, essentially fur.
A human plant would actually look much like a yeti.
In the well-known Star-Trek episode genetically modified human beings were cryogenically frozen and launched into space. Much coy sexual innuendo, heated violence, and hundreds of millions of dollars in profit later this resulted in the death of Spock.
Human plants offer several advantages for interstellar space travel. First, with a minimum of food plants can live an extraordinarily long time. The oldest living plant in the world is a Bristlecone pine tree in Nevada nearing its 5000 birthday. If genetically engineering humans slows the aging process in the same way the need for inter-generational space travel disappears.
Second, the hardiest species we know on earth are plants. They are called extremophiles and they live in conditions inconceivable to human flesh. NASA is already investigating how to genetically modify earth plants to survive on Mars. If we can modify plants to survive on Mars and we can modify humans to be plants its logical we can genetically engineer humans to survive on Mars.
But the biggest advantage of human plants for space travel lies in embryonic or seed dormancy. A dormant seed requires almost no life support whatsoever. The oldest living seed that has been successfully germinated is 1300 years old. Forget menstruation and pregnancy; in the future human babies might simply sprout from the ground on some alien planet.
Flesh: The Final Frontier
The major long-term implication of the Copernican Revolution was to remove earth (and hence it’s inhabitants) from the center of the cosmos. The major long-term implication of the Darwinian revolution is that human beings are not even the center of the evolutionary process of life on earth. People often justify pleas for biodiversity on the benefits that this diversity brings or can bring to human beings. Evolution could care less such about anthropomorphism. It’s not the case that we need life so much as it is that life needs us if it ever intends to expand past this planet.
The tagline of the Star Trek series is that space is the final frontier. Yet interestingly there is very little focus on either stars or space in Star Trek; its focus is mostly on the life forms that inhabit the stars. Kirk and crew represent one vision of pilgrims' progress; a vision where genetic advancements are shockingly taboo.
Spiritual leaders often tell us that our human form is just one temporary step in an infinite or eternal pilgrim’s progress; heaven or hell or nirvana or Jannah awaits us. So why shouldn’t this be true in physical evolution too. One vision of that physical future is on display at Fizzcrank Airstrip in the gnome robots saved from with the Curse of the Flesh. Another vision of that future is in the Druid Tree of Life form where the very plasticity of flesh is not a curse but the ultimate salve.
In one of my favorite poems the poet T.S Eliot calls incarnation “the gift half understood”. For what is the point of having flesh anyway; what is the progress we are making as pilgrims. Where are we going to? Back to dust from which we have arisen? To a future of metal and stone? To plant life on some unimaginable planet some inconceivable distance away?
Where is humanity boldly going?
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