Packing light for Mars? Bring genetically modified algae
Bioengineered organisms could open up a lot of room in astronauts' suitcases. The more food and fuel travelers can produce once they arrive on Mars or the moon, the less they have to pack.
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To design an organism for use on another planet, researchers want to mix and match desired qualities from multiple species. For example, they might start with a species that can do something useful, such as processing materials into biofuels or food. But this species might not be fit for a harsh environment such as on the surface of Mars, where there is no atmosphere to block harmful ultraviolet radiation, and where temperatures can reach frigid depths.Skip to next paragraph
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To fix that problem, researchers might want to give that organism genes from extremophile life — species on Earth that are adapted to extreme environments and are well-suited to tolerate cold and resist UV radiation.
Scientists have already achieved some successes in this quest. Cumbers described an experiment in which researchers genetically engineered an E. coli bacterium to survive at lower temperatures than it normally does. They accomplished this by transferring into an E. coli cell the genes from a chaperone from a cold-tolerant organism found in sea ice. A chaperone is a protein that helps other proteins to fold correctly.
One goal that could prove useful for space exploration is creating a synthetic version of spirulina, a dietary supplement made from microscopic algae produced by cyanobacteria. Spirulina is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids humans need in their diet. That makes it an ideal food to bring on a space mission.
But spirulina generally grows in open ponds in the warm waters of Hawaii – so adapting it to life on, say, the moon is an engineering challenge.
Packing for space
One reason bioengineered organisms are so appealing for space travel is that they could open up a lot of room in astronauts' suitcases. The more supplies space travelers can produce once they arrive at their destination, the less they have to pack on the spacecraft.
"For manned missions to the moon or Mars we're going to have to take nearly everything with us, at least at the beginning," Cumbers said. "If we have this new technology where we can take the complete genome of an organism and send it into space — and can have that single cell replicate from the resources it finds around it rather than resources we've taken with us — then we've started to tackle the problem."