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Engineering Life to Survive on Mars and Aid Human Colonization

Date: 22.10.2012 

With NASA’s Curiosity Rover safely on Mars and ready to search for signs of life, back on Earth attempts are underway to engineer bacteria that could thrive on the Red Planet.

A team of undergraduates from Stanford and Brown Universities are busy applying synthetic biology to space exploration, outfitting microbes to survive extreme Martian conditions and produce resources needed to sustain a human colony.

Though Mars is potentially a place where life may have survived at some point, it is not an especially friendly environment, and thriving there will not be easy — for humans or microbes. The average surface temperature of Mars is minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and the almost-nonexistent atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide. Although water exists in Mars’ ice caps and there’s some evidence that giant oceans once covered the planet, today it’s essentially a deep-frozen desert. Colonizing Mars would be challenging and pricey.

Obviously, bringing up heavy machinery or building materials is going to be really expensive,” said Brown student and team captain Ben Geilich. “The benefit of having bacteria that can do this for you is they’re really small and very light. Once there, they could grow food, produce medicine, extract minerals, and build building material.”

The project is part of the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) challenge, an annual synthetic biology competition that pits students around the world against each other in attempts to ingeniously hack living cells to perform new tasks. In a regional iGEM meet in October, Geilich’s team will present what they call a Hell Cell, a suite of genetically engineered parts that could enable a bacterium to withstand severe cold, dryness and radiation. Geilich calls it “a genetic box of crayons for extremophile conditions.” ...

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