Today’s world is faced with thousands of complex problems that seem to be insurmountable. One of the most pressing is the issue of the environment and how our over-worked planet can sustain such an ever-growing society. Our major source of energy is finite and rapidly depleting. Carbon dioxide emissions have passed the “irreversibility” threshold. Our oceans and atmosphere are polluted, and scientists predict a grim future for Mother Earth if humans do not change our wasteful ways. A future similar to the scenes of “Interstellar” or “Wall-E” is becoming increasing less fictitious. While most of the science world is turning to alternative fuels and public activism as vehicles for change, some radical experts in climate change and astronomy suggest relocation to a different planet: Mars. The Mars rover, Curiosity, presents evidence that Mars has the building blocks of a potential human colony, such as the presence of heavy metals and nutrients nestled in its iconic red surface. This planet, similar in location, temperature, and size to Earth, seems to have the groundwork to be our next home. Now is when we ponder: perhaps our Earth was not meant to sustain human life for eternity. Perhaps we are living at the tail end of our time on Earth.
Colonizing Mars would be a project beyond any in human history, and the rate-limiting step of this process would be developing an atmosphere that could sustain human, animal, and plant life. The future of mankind on Mars is contingent on developing a breathable atmosphere, so humans and animals could thrive without the assistance of oxygen tanks, and vegetation could grow without the assistance of a greenhouse. The Martian atmosphere has little oxygen, being almost 95.7 percent carbon dioxide. It is also one percent of the density of Earth’s atmosphere, so it provides no protection from the Sun’s radiation. Our atmosphere, armed with a thick layer of ozone, absorbs or deflects the majority of radiation before it hits our surface. Even if a human could breathe on the surface of Mars, he or she would die from radiation poisoning or cancer. Fascinating ways to address this have been discussed, one being mass hydrogen bombing across the entire surface of the planet, creating an atmosphere of dust and debris thick enough to block ultraviolet radiation. This feat can also be accomplished by physically harnessing nearby asteroids and catapulting them into the surface. The final popular idea is the use of mega-mirrors to capture the energy of the sun to warm up the surface to release greenhouse gases from deep within the soil.1
However, bioengineers have suggested another way of colonizing Mars--a way that does not require factories or asteroids or even human action for that matter. Instead, we would use genetically modified plants and algae to build the Martian atmosphere. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is pursuing research in developing these completely new life forms.2 These life forms would not need oxygen or water to survive, but instead would synthesize a new atmosphere given the materials already on Mars. The bioengineering lab at DARPA has developed a software called DTA GView which has been called a “Google Maps of Genomes.” It acts as a library of genes, and DARPA has identified genes that could be inserted into extremophile organisms. A bacteria called Chroococcidiopsis is resistant to wide temperature changes and hypersalinity, two conditions found on Mars.3 Carnobacterium spp has proven to thrive under low pressure and in the absence of oxygen. These two organisms could potentially be genetically engineered to live on Mars and add vital life-sustaining molecules to the atmosphere.
Other scientific developments must occur before these organisms are ready to pioneer the human future on Mars. Curiosity must send Earth more data regarding what materials are present in Mars’ soil, and we must study how to choose, build, and transport the ideal candidate to Mars. Plus, many argue that our scientific research should be focused on healing our current home instead of building a new one. If we are willing to invest the immense scientific capital required to terraform another planet, we would likely also be able to mediate the problem of Earthly pollution. However, in such a challenging time, we must venture to new frontiers, and the bioengineers at DARPA have given us an alternative method to go where no man or woman has ever gone before.
- “The ethics of terraforming Mars: a review” iGem Valencia Team, 2010, 1-12 (Accessed November 2, 2016)
- Terraforming Mars With Microbeshttp://schaechter.asmblog.org/schaechter/2013/06/terraforming-mars-with-microbes.html (Accessed November 4, 2016)
- We are Engineering the Organisms that will terraform Mars.http://motherboard.vice.com/read/darpa-we-are-engineering-the-organisms-that-will-terraform-mars (Accessed November 4, 2016)