Lab-Made Terraforming Organisms Could Make Life on Mars Possible

Scientists at DARPA want to use genomic bioengineering to transform the Martian surface into a place we could someday live.

image via (cc) flickr user gsfc

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is probably as close to a cadre of comic book-ish “Mad Scientists” as we’re likely to get in the real world. Ostensibly the Department of Defence’s futurist and emerging tech brain-trust, DARPA and its researchers are responsible for some of the most innovative, forward-thinking scientific developments of the modern era, including driverless cars, robotic exo-skeletons, and mind-controlled aircraft. But while their work has, to date, been primarily geared toward affecting life here on earth, a team of DARPA scientists have set their sights just a little bit higher, announcing recently that they are working toward using bio-engineered organisms to someday help terraform the surface of Mars.

Speaking this month at a DARPA-hosted bio-tech conference, Alicia Jackson, deputy-director of the agency's Biological Technologies division, told attendees that “[f]or 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.”

ExplainsVice’s Motherboard, Jackson is referring to her team’s year-long work into expanding the roster of organisms capable of being genetically engineered. Until now, it seems, science has focused on the engineering of the e.coli bacteria, and yeast—two of the most commonly used organisms for most types of scientific research. Jackson believes by broadening the types of organisms that we can genetically map, and subsequently engineer, we will be able to eventually select key desirable genomes, and combine them in custom-built micro-organisms capable of exhibiting specific, actionable traits.

image via (cc) flickr user kaibara

To that end, DARPA and its partners have reportedly developed a software system called the DTA GView. Think of it as an advanced genomic map, able to direct researchers through the collected genetic data available, and help them identify, and then locate, desirable genetic code. What does that mean, in plain English? It means that DARPA researchers believe that they may someday be able to fashion custom made organisms which could be designed to survive in particularly inhospitable environments, but still engage in organic processes like photosynthesis. In other words, start making the red planet a little more green. A disquieting prospect? Perhaps, but it’s one for which a number of serious thinkers, including Space X’s Elon Musk and human genome pioneer Craig Venter have thrown their weight behind.

Should Jackson’s DARPA research ever progress out of the lab and into the field, the organisms would likely be tested on planet earth, long before making the interplanetary trip to Mars. Here they would help repair environments damaged by both man-made, and natural disasters—places where a little super-charged photosynthesis could help stabilize an out-of-whack ecosystem. Only then, after further research, tweaking, calibration, and testing, it’s conceivable that a interplanetary crew of custom-built micro-organisms could make landfall on Mars, paving the way for an eventual, long-term human colony.

For now, it seems as if the prospect of terraforming Mars is still very much just a theoretical possibility. Still, should our descendants some day wake up, stretch, and breathe in some of that sweet Martian air, it’s possible that they’ll have DARPA, and its bio-engineered micro-organisms, to thank.

[via tech times]