And we’re back with some more news of and about the Red Planet! Thanks to Curiosity’s ongoing efforts to discover potential life on Mars, scientists back at home have begun to seriously contemplate engineering life that will help in our own colonization efforts someday. The rational seems to be, “why search for life on Mars when you could create it?”
And the reasons for this seem pretty straightforward. Though Mars may have supported life at one time, it is not an especially hospitable environment right now. If in fact human beings settle there someday, survival won’t be easy. The average surface temperature of Mars is minus 60 degrees Celsius, and the almost-nonexistent atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide.
And although water exists in Mars’ ice caps and there’s some evidence that oceans once existed, today it’s essentially a deep-frozen desert. If the would-be settlers ever want to live beyond sealed domes, and eat something other than hydroponically grown food and melted ice that is constantly being recycled, efforts to be got underway to ecologically engineer the surface.
And one such group is a team of undergraduate students from Stanford and Brown Universities that are busy applying synthetic biology to space exploration, outfitting microbes to survive the extreme Martian conditions and produce resources needed to sustain a human colony. According to Ben Geilich, the team Captain, the benefits are obvious: “Obviously, bringing up heavy machinery or building materials is going to be really expensive. The benefit of having bacteria that can do this for you is they’re really small and very light. Once there, they could grow food, produce medicine, extract minerals, and build building material.”
The fruit of their labor is the Hell Cell, a genetically engineered assemblage that could enable a bacterium to withstand extreme cold, dryness and radiation. It includes genetic modules, or BioBricks, based on DNA from a variety of ultra-tough organisms, including a cold-resistant species of Siberian beetle that makes “antifreeze” proteins, a radiation-resistant bacterium that sequesters large amounts of the element manganese, and E. coli, which produces a nutrient that confers cold and drought resistance.
It’s part of a process that Andre Burnier, one of the team’s mentors and a lab technician at NASA’s Ames Research Center, described in the following way: “You go into nature and find genes, and then you can recombine them into circuits that you cannot find in nature.” After presenting their Hell Cell during the regional International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) challenge this month, the team has since moved on to developing bacteria that could extract minerals from Martian sediment or recycle rare metals from spacecraft electronics. In addition, they are also investigating heat and acid-tolerance mechanisms that could be useful in other planetary environments, particulary Venus, which as you may recall, is also a candidate for terraforming.
Needless to say, Geilich is excited by all the doors theirs and the research of others is opening. “In the coming years,” he says, “I think we’re going to see a huge boom in stuff done with bacteria, only limited by our imagination and creativity.” But of course, not all agree. As Burner indicates, there are ethical implications that are likely to upset some, should the concept ever be made viable. After all, if there is no life on planet to begin with, then there are no ethical implications about transforming it. But send in the bacteria to change up a world that already boasts life, and you are essentially committing eco-genocide.
All of this puts me in mind of the Genesis Project from Star Trek II and III. There, scientists created a device which could alter the configuration of any planet within minutes. With a name like “Genesis”, the purpose was pretty self-explanatory – to create life from lifelessness. But this made it absolutely necessary to find a lifeless planet, otherwise whatever was already there would find itself permanently altered.
Funny how science fiction predicts real science, up to and including the ethical implications. They were pretty good movies too, go heck them out. And follow the link below for more reading on the subject!