DARPA engineers organisms to terraform Mars

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is reportedly in the process of developing engineered organisms capable of terraforming the surface of Mars, transforming the Red Planet into a habitable, hospitable environment closer to the Earth.

As RT.com explains, if humans are ever going to live on the Red Planet without simply being stuck inside buildings and synthetic environments, we would have to drastically alter its climate and surface features, which include low gravity, a thin atmosphere, and dangerous dust storms.

In addition, its distance from the sun would make it too cold for mankind to live normally, with temperatures on Mars averaging -50 degrees Celsius (-122 degrees Fahrenheit). The answer may lie in artificially altering the environment by genetically engineering plants and other organisms to heat up the planet, and potentially even thicken the atmosphere.

DARPA, which according to Motherboard has already been investing in genetic engineering and synthetic biology, claims that it is currently working on organisms that could ultimately make the Red Planet the type of place that humanity could someday (in the far off future) call home.

Creating new life forms using only the best genes

As Alicia Jackson, the deputy director of DARPA’s new Biological Technologies Office, said, “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 technological toolkit Jackson refers to includes research that’s been going on in her team’s lab for the past year, involving how to easily genetically engineer organisms of various types, not just the two most commonly used in synthetic biology projects (yeast and E. coli). Furthermore, DARPA has created new software, DTA GView, which was demonstrated at the conference. Jackson calls it the “Good Maps of genomes,” Motherboard said.

“There are anywhere from 30 million to 30 billion organisms on this Earth. We use two right now for engineering biology,” she explained. “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 engineerable systems [and genes]. It’s built to look for an esoteric and interesting thing I can publish an academic paper on.”

“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. With this, the goal is to, within a day, sequence and find where I can best engineer an organism,” Jackson continued, adding that the goal is to make it possible to choose the best genes from different organisms, then mix and match them to create completely new forms of life.

While these advances could be used in the aftermath of a natural or man-made disaster, if it proves successful could also be used on Mars. There, the organisms would ideally make planets like Mars habitable and lead to human colonies on other worlds.


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