Colonizing Mars could spark new kind of super human species

The human species has significantly evolved during the last two centuries. Our population on Earth has exploded from about one billion to over seven billion people. And we've even changed physically as more humans are taller now than ever before.

But despite all of the natural changes the human species has undergone here on earth, a bigger change looms –- one that's light years away, literally.

Some of the biggest names in science and technology have been calling for the colonization of Mars, including visionaries like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk and physicist Stephen Hawking. They agree that populating other planets could ensure the survival of the human race when the Earth is rendered uninhabitable by a disaster.

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In an effort to preserve humankind, scientists and engineers are rapidly developing the technology necessary for interplanetary travel to Mars. But that very journey to Mars, scientists say, would likely permanently change human biology, thus, creating a new species.

"As soon as you get into space, we've seen thousands of genes changing their structure. What we've seen now in the last couple years of study is that some of these genes return to their normal state when they return back to Earth, but there are still hundreds that are perturbed," Christopher Maison, an Associate Professor of Computational Genomics in Computational Biomedicine at Cornell University, said Thursday while speaking at the "Evolution Beyond Earth" program held at New York University.

"What people have noticed is actually within minutes of going into space you start to experience lots of changes," Ting Wu, molecular biologist and Genetics Professor at Harvard Medical School, who was also sitting alongside Maison on the panel, added in an interview with AOL News. A lot these changes occur on account of the human's physiological genetic response to space travel, Wu said, as the human body acclimates to the new environment.

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Astronauts have faced a range of health impacts during extend periods of time in space, including bone loss, muscle atrophy, kidney stones, and eye problems. And, interestingly enough, when astronauts return to Earth, even when earthly environmental factors force them to then re-acclimate to their birth planet, they still never completely return to their original state prior to entering space.

But the story will change for those who don't return to Earth, more notably, the first group of humans that will colonize Mars.

"Within a few generations you would probably have a more extensive version of what humans would go through in the space station," Wu said, adding that by the second or third generation, we will begin to see alterations in genes as a result of these effects.

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"There is evidence now that an individual organism will be able to pick up on a response or a trait developed by its parent that will be inheritable for generations until the stimulus from which it was created disappears," Wu said.

And the idea of an organism passing down characteristics it has acquired in its lifetime to its offspring -- or Lamarckism -- has scientists speculating colonists on Mars could evolve into a kind of species after years of isolation on the red planet -- where sunlight and gravity are much weaker than on Earth and mutation-causing radiation is more intense, which may result in the bodies of Mars colonists to change entirely.

But, speciation is a long-term process that typically requires reproductive isolation for billions of years, Wu said. "I believe the evolution of a new species on another planet that would be broad enough and extensive to generate a group of people that represents a new species would take a lot longer than a couple generations."