spaceSpace and Physics

DARPA Wants to Genetically Engineer Organisms to Terraform Mars

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Caroline Reid

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764 DARPA Wants to Genetically Engineer Organisms to Terraform Mars
Artist's conception of Mars. Moyan Brenn/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

There has been a lot of buzz in recent years about the possibility of mankind's big move to our nearest neighbor, Mars. Moving our species to the Red Planet also implies that we will be shipping over microorganisms, plants and maybe even animals. 

But how?


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has suggested one route to producing a life-sustaining atmosphere on Mars. They don't plan on just sending up a spacecraft full of biomatter and dumping it on the surface to see what happens. Instead, the idea is to heat, and maybe even thicken, the planet's atmosphere using a host of photosynthetic organisms, including bacteria and plants. 

The probability of anyone terraforming the Red Planet, transforming it from a harsh world into a habitable green-and-blue one like Earth, is still exceptionally slim. However, at a DARPA-hosted biotech conference, the agency announced that "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."” The speaker was Alicia Jackson, Deputy Director of DARPA’'s Biological Technologies Office.

The 'technological toolkit' that Jackson refers to is DTA GView. Jackson describes the software as the "“Google Maps of genomes”." This archive gives the user information about known genes in an organism, alongside their position 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.”"

Future goals include eradicating vector-borne illnesses, engineering organisms that undo environmental damage and creating organisms that can survive in harsh environments. Maybe once DARPA has perfected terraforming Earth's most uninhabitable or damaged environments, it can then set its sights on Mars. 


Terraforming Mars would be difficult: It would require growing organisms on Earth, packaging them to survive the voyage to Mars, and then encouraging them to grow on the Martian landscape. Also, anything brought to Mars would have to be grown carefully and in a controlled environment, as it would be disastrous to terraform Mars into, say, an Ebola-covered planet. 

This plan might be fated to stay on the drawing board for some time, but it's a bright, vibrant and imaginative drawing board.

Header Image: Moyan Brenn/Flickr

[H/T: Motherboard]


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