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Humanity’s journey into space may only be one-way, says Cambridge CEO

Life on Earth is a function of a vast microbial biomass, which we are only just starting to comprehend
Life on Earth is a function of a vast microbial biomass, which we are only just starting to comprehend

Everything from the individual person to the whole entity that is the Earth needs to be recalibrated through the lens of the microbiome, says Anthony Finbow, CEO of Eagle Genomics, which has developed AI-augmented knowledge discovery platform.

The Wellcome Genome Campus-based company has identified the microbiome – the genetic material of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses living in us, on us and around us – as a vital key to our survival.

“The gut microbiome has a role in the digestion, absorption, and metabolism of food and nutrients, but more broadly it’s the largest portion of the biomass on Earth,” says Anthony. “It’s the missing piece of the jigsaw. The microbiome is the focus of a number of enterprise verticals, some of which involve food – and any attempts to personalise or stratify food requires an understanding of the microbiome.”

The world’s most pressing problems – global warming, soil degradation, food supply and disease – are Eagle Genomics’ targets: the company this week announced $9m in new scale-up funding.

“Some commentators estimate that we have 60 harvests left in our soils,” says Anthony. “We are decimating the soil. We are not currently growing crops in a sustainable way and we need to reverse that, and we can’t understand how to do that without looking at how the microbiome interacts with the Earth and the plants in the soil.”

And - it's often the deal with science - one of the ways to be able to assess how the the microbiome facilitates life is to evaluate what happens in extreme conditions. Though the changes that a fuller understanding of the microbial biomass will usher in are vast, they do have roots in our experience - just.

“A hundred years ago people tried to colonise Antarctica and they stayed in that very inhospitable place, and people were born there,” explains Anthony. “But when the people born there went to South America they died very quickly.

“Eric Smith and Harold Morowitz in The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth: The Emergence of the Fourth Geosphere, say that this different perspective suggests that life is an inevitability rather than a happy accident.”

Anthony Finbow, CEO of Eagle Genomics
Anthony Finbow, CEO of Eagle Genomics

Smith and Morowitz introduce the idea of life as a “fourth geosphere” that complements the other three - the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere. Topics range from geochemistry to the organisation of metabolic pathways to the theory of nonequilibrium phase transitions.

In this new perspective, individuals are only interesting as a byproduct of ecosystems. Life is not something that happens on a planet, but something that happens to a planet. Life is a series of phased transitions away from a lifeless Earth. Darwinian evolution is a latecomer to this story: evolution is a byproduct of the process rather than its instigator.

One of the ways we may discover our place in the universe will come through space exploration, adds Anthony - but the human organism may only be adaptive in one direction, so the problems may not be on the outward-bound leg, but what what takes place in the adapted-to-space organism as if returned to Earth.

Tesla founder Elon Musk is a big fan of developing links to Mars
Tesla founder Elon Musk is a big fan of developing links to Mars

“What took place in Antarctica is the same for interplanetary travel: the possibilities are so transformational. Elon Musk says ‘let’s colonise Mars’, but the problems aren’t about what happens on Mars, but what happens when the astronauts come back from Mars.

“There is a scientific inevitability about what happens next. It might take hundreds of years but we need to start looking at things differently – and we are. This heretofore invisible component of the system will radically change us and our understanding of illness and disease.”

Another Cambridge science-led company, Mirobiotica, has described how good gut bacteria boosts your immune system which helps the body resist Covid-19.

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