Synthetic life could aid space exploration

Sep 23, 2010 By Clara Moskowitz
Artist's illustration of a future moon base. Synthetic organisms could help astronauts produce food and fuel. Credit: NASA

When packing for a manned mission to Mars or the Moon, the best thing to bring may not be food or fuel, but specially designed organisms that can create those things for you.

Scientists are researching the possibility of engineering synthetic organisms that could use the resources available in the solar system to create the supplies would need to survive on another planet.

"Personally I'm interested in settlement," said John Cumbers, a graduate student at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., who is researching synthetic microbes. "I think we have two choices. We can either go into space and be living inside a tin can, or we can be going into space and recreating in space some of the beauty of nature we have here on Earth."

Cumbers said he wasn't advocating terraforming, or completely restructuring the surface of a planet to mimic Earth, but rather using bioengineered organisms in a planned and contained way to make life easier in an alien environment.

"I think there's a lot that we can do that’s productive with biology without having to release organisms in an unplanned fashion," Cumbers told Astrobiology Magazine.

Dangerous microbes?

Yet even with careful planning, this concept could also bring risks, as some experts warn against creating dangerous "Frankenlife" that could become an with unintended consequences for either humans or the environment, or could possibly harm native alien life.

Orbiting bioreactors around Mars could use resources from the Red Planet to create food or fuel. Some scientists propose bioengineering synthetic organisms to aid in these reactions. Credit: Eric Belita / John Cumbers

However, other scientists advise reining in fears.

"I don't think this would be particularly hazardous," said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at Ames who is not involved in Cumbers' project. "The sort of organisms that would be good at doing mineral extraction -- acidophiles for example -- are not the type of organisms that cause disease."

And, he said, these synthetic organisms would present no more risk of contaminating searches for alien life than would the normal microbes that would be carried there by humans and spacecraft.

"In any case we will have to learn how to tell the difference between contamination from Earth and ," McKay said.

Making life easier

To design an organism for use on another planet, researchers want to mix and match desired qualities from multiple species. For example, they might start with a species that can do something useful, like process materials into biofuels or food. But this species might not be adapted for life in a harsh alien environment like the surface of Mars, where there is no atmosphere to block harmful ultraviolet radiation, and temperatures can reach frigid depths. To fix that issue, researchers might want to give that organism genes from extremophile life - species on Earth that are adapted to extreme environments and are well-suited to tolerate cold and resist UV radiation.

Scientists have already achieved some successes in this quest.

Synthetic life could aid space exploration
Scientists recently created a synthetic genome using colonies of Mycoplasma mycoides bacteria. Credit: J. Craig Venter Institute

Cumbers described an experiment where researchers genetically engineered an E. coli bacterium to survive at lower temperatures than it normally does. They accomplished this by transferring the genes for a chaperone (a protein that helps other proteins to fold correctly) from a cold-tolerant organism found in sea ice into an E. coli cell.

One goal that could prove useful for space exploration is creating a synthetic version of spirulina, a dietary supplement made from microscopic algae produced by cyanobacteria. Spirulina is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids humans need in their diet. That makes it an ideal food to bring on a space mission.

But spirulina generally grows in open ponds in the warm waters of Hawaii - so adapting it to life on, say, the Moon, is an engineering challenge.

Packing for space

One reason bioengineered organisms are so appealing for space travel is because they could open up a lot of room in astronauts' suitcases. The more supplies space travelers can produce once they arrive at their destination, rather than pack on the spacecraft that takes them there, the better.

"For manned missions to the Moon or Mars we're going to have to take nearly everything with us, at least at the beginning," Cumbers said. "If we have this new technology where we can take the complete genome of an organism and send it into space, and can have that single cell replicate from the resources it finds around it, rather than resources we've taken with us, then we've started to tackle the problem."

Cumbers presented his work with Lynn Rothschild, his advisor at Ames, at the Astrobiology Science Conference in League City, Texas, in April.

Explore further: DNA survives critical entry into Earth's atmosphere

Source: Astrobio.net, By Clara Moskowitz

3.6 /5 (5 votes)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Resisting Radiation

Mar 30, 2006

In Star Wars and Star Trek movies, people travel between planets and galaxies with ease. But our future in space is far from assured. Issues of hyperdrive and wormholes aside, it doesn't seem possible that the human body co ...

Lichen Survives In Space

Nov 10, 2005

One of the main focuses in the search for living organisms on other planets and the possibilities for transfer of life between planets currently centres on bacteria, due to the organisms simplicity and the possibility of ...

Microbes survive a year and a half in space

Aug 25, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Bacteria collected from rocks taken from the cliffs at the tiny English fishing village of Beer in Devon, have survived on the outside surface of the International Space Station for 553 days. ...

Migrating Microbes

Oct 15, 2009

With every spacecraft that leaves Earth, millions of microbes hitch a ride into space. As astrobiologists search for life in other worlds, preventing forward and back contamination remains a key priority.

Recommended for you

Rosetta's comet: In the shadow of the coma

6 hours ago

This NAVCAM mosaic comprises four individual images taken on 20 November from a distance of 30.8 km from the centre of Comet 67P/C-G. The image resolution is 2.6 m/pixel, so each original 1024 x 1024 pixel ...

DNA survives critical entry into Earth's atmosphere

Nov 26, 2014

The genetic material DNA can survive a flight through space and re-entry into the earth's atmosphere—and still pass on genetic information. A team of scientists from UZH obtained these astonishing results ...

Team develops cognitive test battery for spaceflight

Nov 26, 2014

Space is one of the most demanding and unforgiving environments. Human exploration of space requires astronauts to maintain consistently high levels of cognitive performance to ensure mission safety and success, and prevent ...

User comments : 4

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

kuro
2 / 5 (3) Sep 24, 2010
The section is wrong, this is for "Science fiction", not "Space exploration".
spacer
1 / 5 (1) Sep 24, 2010
Use the technology of the Flying Saucer, discovered in Canada, patented, suggested to Nasa and misused by incompetent Rocket Propulsion Engineers in Cleveland, Ohio (They caused the big blackout of 2003 and then advised Nasa that it was unsuitable for Space Travel!).
A real space ship (even the Shuttle) using the techology would have landed on the Moon in just a couple of hours. Why grow your food on the Moon when you can get it wholesale from Florida?
kuro
2 / 5 (1) Sep 24, 2010
"Why grow your food on the Moon when you can get it wholesale from Florida?"

Fresh and natural - you can't get that from Florida.
Quantum_Conundrum
1 / 5 (1) Sep 25, 2010
Kuro:

While I am personally very wary of transgenics, the fact is this technology is already being used.

Just two days ago I saw on the news a segment about a new transgenic Salmon that has been produced using a gene from a sea eel which causes it to produce more growth hormone, and therefore grow much larger and faster than natural salmon. The company has, however, made the FALSE claim that the meat is the same as normal salmon. Anyone who knows about DNA knows that every cell of the creature's body has in fact been altered, so it can't be the same.

At any rate, transgenic foods appear to be right around the corner from being on the open market...

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.