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FOG Spotlight: A Conversation with Christopher Mason

“I think a lot of people in the public, they hear things about genetics or cells, and they really just want to ask questions to a geneticist or a scientist.”

Last week, we had the opportunity to sit down with Festival of Genomics and Biodata keynote speaker Christopher Mason (Professor, Weill Cornell Medicine). Christopher will be joining us in Boston next week to discuss the 500-year plan for undertaking the ambitious project of reengineering human genetics for life on other worlds, and he gave us a preview into what he’ll be discussing, the benefits of democratising science and how researchers can better communicate with the public.

Want to hear more from Christopher and 170+ expert speakers? Join us at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston. It’s FREE for 90% of attendess!

Please note: Transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

FLG: Hi, everybody. Today, we’re joined by Christopher Mason, who’ll be joining us at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata next month for a Fireside Chat about the 500-year survival plan. So, Christopher, over to you. If you’d like to give us a brief introduction to yourself and your career.

Chris Mason: Thanks for having me. I’m Chris Mason, Professor of Genomics, Physiology and Biophysics at Weill Cornell Medicine, the medical school for Cornell in New York City. My background’s in genetics – I’ve actually been doing genetics and genomics ever I dreamt about being a scientist as a kid. It was all genetics, all the time. That’s from an undergraduate in genetics in Madison, Wisconsin, then a PhD at Yale in genetics, a postdoc in clinical genetics, genetics fellowship at Yale Law School, and I’ve had a genetics lab at Cornell since 2009. The lab has three divisions, with the first focused on clinical genetics, for everything from cancer patients, to epigenetic therapies and infectious disease, to space medicine.

The second part of my lab is looking at computational methods, algorithms and tools to process large amounts of data and various kinds of machine learning or AI tools that we’ve developed. The third is synthetic biology, taking some of the lessons, knowledge and models from the first two pillars of the lab and then applying them into a design phase. Mixing and matching components between species, or modifying genetics and epigenetics within one species, to better understand them, and also to better prepare for us to eventually survive and thrive on other planets and moons.

FLG: That all sounds really interesting. You’ve been involved in some exciting projects. Could you elaborate on some of them?

Chris Mason: Yes, we have done a wide range of projects in the lab. I think some of the real highlights have been, for example, in the NASA Twin Study. We had identical twins, where one went to space for a year and one stayed on Earth, Scott Kelly, and his brother, now Senator Mark Kelly. The study itself was illustrative of how much the body changes over the course of time and space. But the good news is that a lot of the changes revert to baseline. So, the human body, while it’s certainly perturbed by being in space, is actually more perturbed by returning back to gravity – I’d say that’s the bigger driver.

We’ve also had projects where we have a global network of people swabbing subway stations to look for new viruses, called the MetaSUB Consortium, which is the metagenomics of subways and urban biomes. We’ve also, a lot more recently, worked with these new clinical trials and modified T-cells for cancer therapies. What is very exciting is that you can design new kinds of cells and deploy them therapeutically.

Finally, we’re expanding a lot on what the Twin Study did, for example, with missions with SpaceX and Axiom and other commercial spaceflight providers. We can now see that human spaceflight is opening up to a much broader audience. Well, anyone who’s got the money for it! But still, it used to be that you couldn’t even go to space unless you were with the government. Now, anyone can start to go into space, either orbital or suborbital flights. So, I’m really excited to see this democratization of access to space, or relative democratization, because it’s still expensive, but at least you can buy a spot on a crewed mission, whereas before you couldn’t.

FLG: That’s all really exciting work – a lot of really exciting things there that I’m sure our audience can go and read about after watching this interview, and I’m sure a lot of them will!

This work is of a very cross-disciplinary nature, how can we ensure that the appropriate frameworks and the opportunities are available to scientists to work in that way?

Chris Mason: Good question. We do like to really be cross-disciplinary, synthesizing ideas and methods between various scientific realms. Let’s say in epigenetics and comparing the transcriptomics, and then comparing that to cognitive or psychiatric measures and pulse rates. Really looking from a very holistic view of what’s happening in the body, around the body, how it manifests long-term, doing follow-up studies on cancer risk or psychology.

In general, I prefer to feel like I’m the stupidest person in the room, because it means I have the greatest chance to learn. I like to, whenever possible, feel like I’m working with someone in a different discipline, who is much smarter than I am in a novel area (to me), so that I can learn the most and have an ability to also put together some of my knowledge with a different discipline.

The main reason, I’d say, that we do a lot of cross-disciplinary work is because our knowledge is so scarce around what happens to the body in space, and how we’ll be able to survive. So, we have to examine the question from as many perspectives and modalities as possible, because there’s so much that we don’t know. And we won’t be able to fly a thousand people into space just yet, so you can’t do a large-scale spaceflight clinical trial, you have to do it only a handful at a time and learn as much as you can about every single person that goes into space.

FLG: At The Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston, you’re going to be discussing the 500-year survival plan. Could you tell us a little bit more about that, and what you think the audience can take away from that talk?

Chris Mason: I think there are a few things I want people to take away from it. A lot of people think that we won’t even survive for more than 500 years as a species, but such a notion is not based on evidence, and belies what is millions of years of survival on the planet, when it’s been colder or hotter, so, we can probably make it. And I think we will make it.

We could also kill ourselves. A lot of people worry about AI or self-destruction or nuclear war. Those are all big questions. But one of the things I want people to really walk away with is the faith that it’s possible, and the knowledge that it’s already occurred, the civility of surviving through really tumultuous states on our planet, through global ice ages, reversal of the magnetic poles. Creatures have survived for a long time. That’s the first thing, I want them to think it’s possible.

The second thing, which is actually the most important part of the book I recently published on the next 500 years, is that the awareness of extinction imparts upon humans a unique responsibility. We’re the only ones, to our knowledge, in the whole universe, aware of extinction. Only we can actually act to prevent it. In some cases we’ve caused it, like the dodo, but it gives us this unique responsibility to all life in the universe, which I think we should really carry as a duty for our species, to all life, anywhere in the universe. So far, it’s just on this planet, as far as we know.

I want the audience to take away that two big things: (1) it can be done and (2) it should be done. We should serve to preserve and protect life on this planet, and even expand life to other planets.

FLG: It sounds like it’s going to be a really exciting talk. What do you think are the biggest scientific challenges humans will face on these extended missions and how can we prepare for them? And also, what are the ethical challenges involved in that?

Chris Mason: There’s a long list of things that could go wrong in space, the vacuum of space can kill you quickly. Radiation levels are much higher in space, that is one of our big concerns. The psychological challenges of being cooped up on a spacecraft for someone for six months – a lot of people, if they get a bad roommate, they go crazy within one week! So, we need to make sure that we have people that understand their own mental self-regulation, understand indicators of stress, and work with teams together. I think there are physical challenges, biomedical, and psychosocial challenges.

Ethically, also, there are ideas of what we could do. For example, you could genetically modify human beings to survive spaceflight better, like activate radiation repair genes before they go. We don’t know if it’s safe enough to do that yet, but I wrote a lot in my recent book about ways that we can do this, with CRISPR-dCas9 systems and other systems that let you tweak the genome or the epigenome to prepare for spaceflight. But that raises big ethical questions of, what if we do something wrong? Should we do somatic editing instead of germline? Probably, yes. And also, what is the planetary liberty? What if we’ve engineered someone so they can only live on Mars, but never come back to Earth? I would view that as a failure, that we have inhibited them from living on multiple planets, when ideally we should expand the reach of where a person could live on a planetary scale. But it raises ethical questions about engineering any life, anywhere.

FLG: There are certainly a lot of questions surrounding it, that I’m sure a lot of people haven’t thought of.

Earlier, you mentioned democratising access to space and ensuring accessibility. A significant goal of The Festival of Genomics and Biodata is to democratise science and ensure open access. Do you have any thoughts on the benefits of that, and how we can ensure it’s done properly?

Chris Mason: A lot of it is open access to data, methods and tools. We work hard to ensure that is the case for all of our studies. One of the main ways is to make sure it’s FAIR – findable, accessible, interpretable and reproducible. These are guidelines for reproducing data, which we follow as closely as possible. And also there are some protections for the crew, so we do ensure that at the same time.

There’s a portal called GeneLab, which is a repository of all spaceflight data, hosted by NASA. Anything that has flown into space, in theory, you can download the raw data or the processed data, and play with it. We want to make sure that people can access it, and what’s great is that it’s a free website. You go to the NASA GeneLab site and you can download example data, play with the code and different interactive tools.

We also put a lot of the data from some of our missions on a portal called the Space Omics and Medical Atlas browser, or the SOMA browser, where anyone can go play with the data and start to generate hypotheses. An analogous version of this is the cBioPortal, the cancer biology data portal, where you can look at which mutations occur in which tumours, which copy number variants. You can quickly generate hypotheses about specific cancers based on this sort of data portal. We want to enable the same access to the data and the tools for spaceflight as well.

FLG: Can you share any details about any upcoming research projects or collaborations?

Chris Mason: Yes, we have a wide range of new missions coming soon, like the SpaceX Polaris Dawn mission. This will be a higher elevation mission, trying out a new spacesuit for an extravehicular activity where you go out into space. We’ll be doing a lot of blood work and genomics profiling, and a lot of other similar work we’ve done for other missions for that crew.

We also have a global city census coming up. Every summer solstice, we swab over 60 cities around the world and collect a microbial census, basically. We’re also preparing for some really big missions that could get us essentially to Venus and Mars in the next 5 to 10 years. We’re looking at some other small satellites that could be launched at our probes, or even the starship, once it is operational, could carry large payloads into orbit to Mars, and potentially to Venus. So, some really ambitious, new projects are coming online.

FLG: That all sounds really exciting, I’ll be keeping an eye out for some of those projects! Obviously, there are a lot of questions that perhaps the general public might have about some of this work – how do you think scientists can better communicate that kind of research and its implications?

Chris Mason: I’ve done some things like book clubs in small Wisconsin towns. You can do a lot of it by Zoom these days. A lot of scientists are kind of like, ‘I’m busy, I’ve got this paper to read, this grant that’s due, I’ve got some meetings.’ But a lot of times even just a half hour with a small book club, or giving talks is obviously a way to do it, or podcasts, or being online.

We actually did a DNA Day event at the Brooklyn Public Library, and they just had a Q&A panel of scientists. Because some people want to know, for example, if HeLa cells still exist, does that mean that Henrietta Lacks is still alive? To which I had to say, well, not really, in the way you mean, but her cells are still alive. I think a lot of people in the public, they hear things about genetics or cells, and they really just want to ask questions to a geneticist or a scientist. So, I think public forums, giving talks, public libraries, just meeting people on the street, at coffee shops and engaging them is great to do.

FLG: As we mentioned, you’re giving a Keynote Fireside Chat at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston in June. What was your motivation for getting involved, and what are you most looking forward to about the event?

Chris Mason: I love The Festival of Genomics. It’s often full of the some of the best speakers, science, projects and updates. I really enjoy going to the FOG events. I’ve been there a few times and I’m looking forward to getting people to think big about the purpose of the science, the future of our species, and the future of all life for that matter. And it’s a great audience, so it’s also just a lot of fun. I’m really looking forward to engaging my peers, seeing old friends, meeting new ones, and brainstorming some fun science.

FLG: We’re looking forward to having you there, and we’re looking forward to hearing your talk!

Want to hear more from Christopher and 170+ expert speakers? Join us at The Festival of Genomics and Biodata in Boston!