Students looking into bioengineering bacteria to help humans survive on Mars

August 9, 2012 by Bob Yirka weblog

( -- If after a lot of study, scientists decide that there just isn’t anything living on Mars, would it be wrong to introduce life there, engineered from organisms here on Earth? That may be a question in search of an answer soon, as right now, researchers are looking into creating bacteria that would be able to survive the harsh Martian environment and that could be used for such things as creating building materials or helping to grow food. More specifically, a team of students from Brown and Stanford Universities, as part of an international competition among college students, is working on ways to create microorganisms that could be useful to people, should we ever send them to colonize the red planet.

Wired magazine has done a profile on the team and reports that they are finding some success by building what they’ve dubbed a Hell Cell, using something else called BioBricks. The idea is to create a cell that allows the DNA of other organisms to be inserted that have desired traits, like a kind of beetle that has natural cold resistance, for example, because it’s really cold on Mars, averaging something like eighty degrees (Fahrenheit) below zero. Mars is also subjected to a lot of radiation, so any bacteria with hopes of surviving would need something like certain types of bacteria that harbor a lot of manganese. The BioBricks are in essence genetic modules that can be plugged into the Hell Cell to help in creating bacteria that possess the desired traits.

The overall idea is to see if bacteria can be created that would be helpful to people living or working on Mars. Tiny organisms that can separate silica and metals, for example, would be useful to help in recycling equipment used to reach the planet, into other equipment more useful for surviving once there. Also helpful would be bacteria that could make medicines, or produce materials that could be used to build structures. Last year the team did just that, engineering a BioBrick that allowed to produce a hard material similar to cement.
The results found by the team and others in the challenge, which has as a goal the manipulation of cells to allow them to perform new tasks, would also help if people ever visit other planets or moons, as each has its own unique environment. Lessons learned from one project can be applied to others.

None of this answers the question of whether intentionally bringing life to would be ethical of course, but it does show that at least in theory, it’s probably possible.

Explore further: Earthly extremes hint to life elsewhere

Related Stories

Earthly extremes hint to life elsewhere

May 23, 2011

If Jocelyne DiRuggiero was looking for life on Mars, she wouldn’t dig in the planet’s red soil. Instead, she’d head where you might not expect.

Should we terraform Mars?

January 2, 2012

As we continue to explore farther out into our solar system and beyond, the question of habitation or colonization inevitably comes up. Manned bases on the Moon or Mars for example, have long been a dream of many. There is ...

Recommended for you

A mission to a metal world—The Psyche mission

October 9, 2015

In their drive to set exploration goals for the future, NASA's Discovery Program put out the call for proposals for their thirteenth Discovery mission in February 2014. After reviewing the 27 initial proposals, a panel of ...

What are white holes?

October 9, 2015

Black holes are created when stars die catastrophically in a supernova. So what in the universe is a white hole?

Image: Pluto's blue sky

October 9, 2015

Pluto's haze layer shows its blue color in this picture taken by the New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC). The high-altitude haze is thought to be similar in nature to that seen at Saturn's moon ...

How to prepare for Mars? NASA consults Navy sub force

October 5, 2015

As NASA contemplates a manned voyage to Mars and the effects missions deeper into space could have on astronauts, it's tapping research from another outfit with experience sending people to the deep: the U.S. Navy submarine ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.3 / 5 (7) Aug 09, 2012
Why get fancy, just bring a couple of mosquitos like they imported to Hawaii some time ago.
3.5 / 5 (8) Aug 09, 2012
"None of this answers the question of whether intentionally bringing life to Mars would be ethical of course, but it does show that at least in theory, its probably possible."

That may seem like an intelligent statement, but it's actually quite stupid. Did we ethically question ourselves when we ventured the sea for new land? No. Have we become more moral today? No. Can we take Mars? Yes, unless some Alien says otherwise. Can we bring life to Mars to build an ecosystem? Yes, practically and easily for bio-engineers. Curiosity will provide the much needed mineral report on the soil of Mars, then we find the most common material across all samples and engineer bacteria to eat that with oxygen waste as a goal or getting them to do some useful task. We already have bacteria that can withstand Mars environment; no need to start from ground zero.

4 / 5 (1) Aug 09, 2012
Get working on in vitro meat, too.
not rated yet Aug 09, 2012
Would genetically engineering tardigrades be a viable option? Tardigrades could survive almost anything, including the vacuume of space. I do not know if it would be possible, but it does sound like a decent option. Since tardigrades aren't microbes, perhaps it would be hard to make them useful. Or perhaps it would be possible to use tardigrade genetic material to aid in the creation of more durable microbes. Just a layman's speculation here.
I do not see any ethical issues with using microbes in order to colonize Mars, though.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 09, 2012
Yes, and while we're at it, we can manufacture a bacteria that might be(or become) lethal to human life there, as well.

Those "unintended consequences can be a real problem...

not rated yet Aug 10, 2012
From the article:

Tiny organisms that can separate silica and metals, for example, would be useful to help in recycling equipment used to reach the planet, into other equipment more useful for surviving once there.

Sounds like these bacteria would make your equipment rot and fall apart. Bad idea. You don't want your equipment to spoil the way food does. People need to be in control of when and how their life-preserving equipment is taken apart.
1 / 5 (2) Aug 12, 2012
An easy low cost way to start terraforming Mars is to seed its water carrying polar caps with polar photosynthetic bacteria from Earth. Any geological thermal sources cropping up on the surface of Mars from its newly described tectonic geology could be used as power sources so try and combine first settlements with those of water source locations. Halophilic photosynthetic bacteria also have a niche on Mars.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.