DARPA Is Trying to Genetically Engineer Organisms to Terraform Mars

Wednesday, 24 June 2015 - 1:56PM
Science News
Astrobiology
Mars
Wednesday, 24 June 2015 - 1:56PM
DARPA Is Trying to Genetically Engineer Organisms to Terraform Mars
Many scientists believe that space colonization will ultimately be the solution to a dying Earth; most recently, Stephen Hawking claimed that humanity would need to start colonizing other planets within the next 1,000 years. Mars is arguably the most prominent candidate for colonization, as it is known to have been host to running liquid water in the relatively recent past. Now, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is looking to the future of Mars colonization, and aims to genetically engineer organisms that can transform Mars into an Earth-like planet. 

"For the first time, we have the technological toolkit to transform not just hostile places here on Earth, but to go into space not just to visit, but to stay," Alicia Jackson, deputy director of DARPA's Biological Technologies Office said at a recent biotech conference.

A significant obstacle towards this goal is the lack of efficiency in genetic engineering research. Most research is done using e. coli and yeast, so there has been very little genomic data available to researchers. Jackson and her team have been working on software called GTA GView, or the "Google maps of genomes," which will allow geneticists to quickly search for the type of genetic material they need for an engineering project. As a result, they will be able to engineer organisms for much more specific purposes.

"There are anywhere from 30 million to 30 billion organisms on this Earth. We use two right now for engineering biology," she said. "I want to use any organism that has properties I want-I want to quickly map it and quickly engineer it."

If this database becomes extensive enough, researchers could theoretically search for specific genes in organisms and know which ones to splice together for a specific purpose within a day. This would allow astrobiologists to create extremophiles that could potentially survive conditions in an extraterrestrial environment, and the photosynthesis from those organisms could render that environment habitable for humans.

The idea of using bacteria to terraform Mars is not a new one, as last year NASA proposed a project called the Mars Ecopoiesis Test Bed, which would involve building large sealed biodomes that would culture colonies of oxygen-producing cyanobacteria and algae in order to produce oxygen on Martian soil. But DARPA's initiative marks the first time an organization has attempted to genetically engineer organisms for this express purpose, and according to DARPA, it could potentially lead to a livable environment outside of a biodome.

They acknowledge that the technology is in its infancy, and even if is more advanced than it sounds, most of DARPA's work is highly classified. But even if we are ultimately unable to use the technology for Mars terraformation, the technology could be used to eradicate vector-borne illnesses, or revive a regional environment after a disaster.

"After a manmade or natural disaster, we can think about recovering the environment," she said. "These are the tools that, for the first time, are allowing us to go after that problem."

Via Motherboard.
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