Students aim to put cyanobacteria on Mars to generate oxygen

December 23, 2014 by Tomasz Nowakowski,,
Cyanobacteria Spirulina. Credit:

Mars is a very harsh and hostile environment for future human explorers and like any other known planet it has no breathable air. That could change someday, and it may be soon enough for our generation to witness it, as the student team from Germany has a bold vision to make a first step to terraform the Red Planet, turning it more Earth-like. The plan is to send cyanobacteria to Mars to generate oxygen out of carbon dioxide which is the main component of Martian atmosphere (nearly 96%). "Cyanobacteria do live in conditions on Earth where no life would be expected. You find them everywhere on our planet!" team leader Robert P. Schröder told "It is the first step on Mars to test microorganisms." The project is participating in the Mars One University Competition and if it wins, it will be send as a payload to Mars, onboard the Dutch company's mission to the Red Planet. Now everyone can vote to help make it happen by visiting the webpage.

The team behind the initiative is composed of a voluntary and interdisciplinary group of students and scientists, from the University of Applied Science and Technical University, both located in Darmstadt, Germany. They call their project 'Cyano Knights' as Schröder explains: "Because of the long history of those Cyanos and their will to survive I named it Cyano Knights and sent the payload proposal instantly to Mars One."

The students work on their project in the laboratory of Cell Culture Technology of the University of Applied Science and they are also in contact with different institutes, not only from Germany.

Cyanobacteria will deliver made of their photosynthesis, reducing and produce an environment for living organisms. Furthermore, they can supply food and important vitamins for a healthy nutrition. The team is already testing cyanobacteria with different environmental conditions in quarantined photobioreactors and monitoring their activities to determine the best working solution on Mars.

Schröder reveals that the idea was born in August this year. But why cyanobacteria? "Initial ideas were of a technical nature, but that was too boring for me. In school I liked biotechnology and that have not changed very much. Once I heard of and how they can survive in harsh conditions on earth and at this special night I had a flashback which grabbed me and convinced me completely," he explains.

The team ensures that at the end of the mission those very well quarantined microorganisms will be terminated. "We will destroy our microorganisms because we don't want to harm Mars," Schröder adds.

So what amount of this bacteria will be needed to fully terraform Mars? "As for now we don't know that really, because we need to find out the best habitable conditions for each strain to cultivate them and then we have references and can calculate it," Schröder says. "We need to test Mars-like conditions and analyze how much energy we have to put into the photobioreactor. So it's a lot work to do."

Mars One will take one project to Mars along with its unmanned lander mission in 2018. Voting submission will be accepted until Dec. 31, 2014. The winning university payload will be announced on Jan. 5, 2015.

Schröder, also a hopeful Mars One colonist is convinced that this is a once in a lifetime Mars shot: "I am proud to be a Mars One astronaut candidate of the current round and don't plan to participate in other missions to get to Mars." So it's more like an ultimate battle for King Robert and his Cyano Knights with Mars at stake.

Explore further: Engineering students aim to generate first breathable air on Mars

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3.4 / 5 (8) Dec 23, 2014
"The team ensures that at the end of the mission those very well quarantined microorganisms will be terminated."

Which assumes that everything goes to plan! But what if, as has happened to other missions to Mars, the probe crash lands and breaks up on impact - there's the distinct possibility that you'll have contaminated the surface with a huge number of terrestrial microbes. Seems like a poorly thought through idea to me!
3.3 / 5 (3) Dec 23, 2014
I love the experiment. Even if it does work, it will not increase the deadly low atmospheric pressure on Mars unless solid CO2 is converted from the poles and even then with no magnetic field it won't last. But it is a very interesting experiment.
4.7 / 5 (6) Dec 23, 2014
@Peteri: Those microbes would include cyanobacteria. So while it contribute risk, it doesn't make much of a difference.

@Rotoscience: The largest problem for the atmosphere may be the low gravity (low mass of Mars). Anyway, the terraformers think a dense atmosphere would last a billion years, as it did when Mars was young.
2.7 / 5 (3) Dec 23, 2014
unless we find water on mars it may be a moot point
1.8 / 5 (4) Dec 23, 2014
they should try first on planet earth with a coal power plant and see how it works reducing co2
Uncle Ira
3.5 / 5 (8) Dec 23, 2014
they should try first on planet earth with a coal power plant and see how it works reducing co2

Don't quit you daytime job Skippy. That sounds like a Returnering-Skippy postum.
3.8 / 5 (5) Dec 23, 2014
I'm not sure what the harm is with introducing cyanobacteria to the Martian environment; they haven't destroyed our planet yet -in fact, they led to an Earth that is inhabitable by its current life. If we ever want Mars to act as another Human world, we have to assume that preparing it to act as-such will result in "contaminating" it with the life and reactions that enable it on Earth.

If we ever find any living organisms on that planet, then we can worry ourselves with the dangers of invasive species. Until then, lets get the ball rolling on terraforming!
2.6 / 5 (7) Dec 23, 2014
I am growing tired of the "quarantine protocols".

There's no INTELLIGENT life on Mars, and no prospect of such in the meaningful future. Therefore, there is nothing about the environment that needs protecting. Quite the opposite: I think it's imperative that we begin to find out what we can do to Terraform the place on a global scale.
4.1 / 5 (8) Dec 23, 2014
@alcore, @cjn: The problem here is that any native life of ANY complexity would be an AMAZING scientific discovery -- all the more if it represents an independent "genesis" from Earth. Right now, we only know of naturally-occurring life on exactly ONE planet in the entire UNIVERSE: Earth! To find another, especially in something as easily accessible as our own solar system, would be a HUGE thing. This is a SCIENCE website -- I am stunned that there are people here who don't seem to appreciate this. You wouldn't destroy dinosaur fossils, would you? I hope not. And there might be somewhere on Mars where there is more than just a "fossil" of life. Why is this any different? Because the life forms may be "squatting" on a potential "home" if they exist?
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 23, 2014
We SHOULD NOT be sending humans or any other Terran life form to the Martian surface yet, until we have done enough work on the planet to either rule out Martian life or if there is life, find a way to preserve it. I suggest we start with sending advanced robots operated by telepresence from orbit as an alternative game plan.
2.5 / 5 (2) Dec 23, 2014
Add: Reading this more closely, I think this particular experiment might be safer than I think, as it could be done in a self-contained vessel, which I think is what they're suggesting. But sending HUMANS is a big no-no at this point in time.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 23, 2014
I just didn't read it carefully enough. My apologies.
5 / 5 (2) Dec 23, 2014
I think that such bacteria could have more near-term impact on manned exploration and colonization if they were part of a greenhouse or dome. The oxygen released by the bacteria could be collected and compressed for use in the same or other structures.
Phil Haberkorn in Indiana
3 / 5 (4) Dec 23, 2014
Yes, by all means, let's turn the planets over to students so they can play Science Fair Project with our solar system.
4.1 / 5 (7) Dec 23, 2014
It is too soon to risk contaminating Mars with terrestrial microbes. First we should search for existing life on Mars, and rule it in or out. It would be great tragedy either to wipe out Mars life, or introduce terrestrial organisms that might be mistaken for native life.

If we visit Mars extensively or colonize it, inevitably we will seed it terrestrial organisms. Moreover, we may learn the hard way that evolution of terrestrial organisms under extraterrestrial conditions can be dangerous. However, that's a dilemma for the future.
4 / 5 (4) Dec 24, 2014
Seriously premature. If there is any life still on Mars - which is very possible, particularly underground - then it could be threatened by Earth cyanobacteria before we even have a chance to find and study it.

Terraforming Mars is a real long range project; I can't see why we couldn't afford to study the darned place first.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 24, 2014
Even if the Earth went through some huge disaster, how could it ever get as uninhabitable as Mars after a thousand years of terraforming (most optimistic estimate of Mars society)?


Just look at Mars, and Earth - who in a solar system with a devastated Earth would go anywhere else except back to Earth? Not to Mars surely. First thing would happen to water vapour in a thicker atmosphere is to freeze out at the poles, until you have as much ice there as Antarctica, and the equatorial deserts drier than the Sahara would soak up any water there.

And so much to learn from the ET equivalents of our microbes - or equally from a planet with organics without life

2 / 5 (2) Dec 24, 2014
For the issues involved in terraforming Mars, http://www.scienc...s-126407

And - for reasons why Mars may well be vulnerable to Earth life even though some think it is possible that it might have shared life with Earth especially in the early Solar system - see

For the reasons many scientists think it may have conditions for present day life right now:

5 / 5 (3) Dec 25, 2014
There were probably Earth microbes on Mars in the past, maybe there are even now. All the meteorites colliding with Earth broke pieces of it and threw them into space; some of them could have landed on Mars, the Moon and Venus. Maybe in the first billion years there was Earth life on several places in the Solar System.

I wonder though how much would life resist on the surface of Mars. I remember having read something about peroxydes on Mars...
5 / 5 (2) Dec 25, 2014
gigel - Mars has peroxides, perchlorates and sulfates - it is so highly oxygenated that instead of chlorides as we get on Earth nearly all the salts found on its surface are perchlorates. Some of the chemicals in the dust would be poisonous to humans - but they are no problem for the right types of microbes which can actually use them as food.
Dec 25, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 26, 2014
I love the idea of terraforming Mars but it took billions of years for Earth's atmosphere to become oxygenated. Homo sapiens will have become extinct long before it occurs on Mars.
3 / 5 (2) Dec 26, 2014
Yes, the sci fi stories for Mars are massively speeded up. To make oxygen via photosynthesis you have to take large amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, several meters thickness of organics deposited over entire surface of Mars - that is if it worked. But it has almost no atmosphere (1% of Earth) and almost no water, and further from sun, and less gravity. And all the factories etc on Earth causing global warming may raise CO2 levels on Earth 0.01% of Earth's atmosphere. Is pretty clear it's a high tech thing to terraform Mars if poss. at all. And no chance of it happening just by adding life without technology. Mars may well have had life indeed, and may have it already.
1 / 5 (1) Dec 28, 2014
There is nothing more important than the survival of the human race. Colonization of another planet will greatly reduce the risk of extinction.
Therefore, we must start the terraforming and colonization as soon as possible - regardless of the existence of any native life on Mars. The possible life of Mars can be of a great scientific interest, but it's not as important as our survival. There is really nothing to discuss here. We must do it.
5 / 5 (1) Dec 29, 2014
So much for the prime directive!
not rated yet Dec 30, 2014
There is nothing more important than the survival of the human race. Colonization of another planet will greatly reduce the risk of extinction.
Therefore, we must start the terraforming and colonization as soon as possible - regardless of the existence of any native life on Mars. The possible life of Mars can be of a great scientific interest, but it's not as important as our survival. There is really nothing to discuss here. We must do it.

All life eventually becomes extinct. I can imagine Homo sapiens evolving into some type of cybernetic organism in the future. It cannot remain immutable.

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