Imagine living on the red planet surrounded by genetically engineered algae, bacteria and plants. No, it might become possible with US defense scientists planning to use to radically transform the climate of Mars and terraform it into an Earth-like planet.
Scientists from Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) aim to warm up and potentially thicken Mars’ atmosphere by growing green, photosynthesising plants, bacteria, and algae on the barren surface of the red 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 new Biological Technologies Office said recently at a DARPA-hosted biotech conference.
For the last year, Jackson’s lab has been working on learning how to more easily genetically engineer organisms of all types, not just e coli and yeast, which are most commonly used in synthetic biology projects.
“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 you look at genome annotation software today, it’s not built to quickly find engineer able systems [and genes],” she was quoted as saying by ‘motherboard.vice.com’.
DARPA and some of its research partners have created software called DTA GView, which Jackson calls the ‘Google Maps of genomes.’
Genomes of several organisms can be pulled up on the programme, which immediately shows a list of known genes and where they are located in the genome.
“This torrent of genomic data we’re now collecting is awesome, except they sit in databases, where they remain data, not knowledge. Very little genetic information we have is actionable,” she said.
“With this, the goal is to, within a day, sequence and find where I can best engineer an organism,” she added.
The goal is to pick and choose the best genes from whatever form of life we want and to edit them into other forms of life to create something entirely new.
This will probably first happen in bacteria and other microorganisms, but the goal may be to do this with more complex, multicellular organisms in the future.
DARPA plans to use specifically engineered organisms to help repair environmental damage.
Jackson said that after a natural or man-made disaster, it would be possible to engineer new types of extremophile organisms capable of surviving in a scarred wasteland.
As those organisms photosynthesised and thrived, it would naturally bring that environment back to health, she said.
With enough practice turning Earth’s damaged landscapes back into places hospitable for life, Jackson thinks we’ll have what it takes to eventually try to colonise the solar system.