Saturday, 18 April 2015

Build A Mars Base with A Box of Engineered Bugs

Travel to Alien Planet – Bug Boxes – Engineered Microbes

The next time humans intend to set foot on an alien planet, they may not have to travel alone but travel along with small lightweight `bug boxes’ that could be full of engineered microbes that would make life on these planets much more liveable.

The pioneering settlers would be needing food, fuel as well as shelter in order to survive on a distant world and tugging along bulky supplies from the Earth could be costly. Another option has been offered by Synthetic biology.

It is said that microbes weigh less and the space taken is next to nothing on a spacecraft though once the mission lands on Mars it is said that they could multiply by feeding on the materials that may be available there. The outcome of their labour could provide the essentials for human settlement.

A research has begun by NASA to realise this vision, according to Lynn Rothschild at the Ames Research Centre in Moffett Field, California. Rothschild who is the leader of NASA’s new Synthetic Biology Initiative, aims to build designer microbes for future crewed space missions and shared her vision at the BioDesign Forum, last week in Cambridge, UK.

Synthetic Biology – At Crossroads of Biology/Engineering 

Synthetics biology lying at the crossroads of biology and engineering has its practitioners building a biological toolkit comprising of chunks of genes, known as biobricks, each performing a certain function of making a bacterium generate natural antifreeze molecule, for instance: Biobricks could be inserted into other microbes to provide that function.

With this approach, a microbe having the capabilities of surviving on an alien planet could become one that can endure human life there. With regards to energy, several earthly microbes would have died in extra-terrestrial environment that are rich in carbon dioxide and nitrogen, the two main elements of Martian air. Anabaena, an ancient cyanobacterium tends to thrive in these conditions though metabolising both gases in order to make sugar.

Rothschild states that `as long as it has warmth and some shielding from ultraviolet light radiation, it could do well on gases in the mars atmosphere’. Anabaena utilises most of the energy produced, from carbon dioxide and nitrogen but synthetic biologist could encourage the cyanobacteria to share its supplies.

Waste – Feed the Microbes

At a synthetic biology competition last year – International Genetically Engineered Machines – iGEM, a team from Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and Stanford University in California portrayed how inserting genetic machinery from E.coli made Anabaena excrete more of its energy as sugar.

 Moreover they also showed that they tend to support colonies of other bacteria as well on sugar. Such microbial colonies, in theory tend to make oil, plastic or fuel for the astronauts. The team which was led by Andre Burnier, a recent Brown graduate who had been advised by Rothschild had also come with options of supplying human settlers on Mars with mortar and bricks and had started with a bacterium known as Sporosarcina pasteurii that unusually tends to break down urea which is the main waste product in urine, excreting ammonium, making the local atmosphere alkaline enough for calcium carbonate cement to form. The waste created by the astronauts could feed the microbes and they in turn could help strengthen fine rocky material on the planet’s surface to create bricks.

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