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1NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
2Katinka Schuett
3NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

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PLASMA MAGAZINE

Published in Issue Nr. 3
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Martian coloni­sation

The rationale for planetary bioengineering of Mars

Human exploration and migration on Earth have driven progress and spawned new civilizations. It seems inevitable that humans will eventually seek to establish themselves on other planets. Mars is considered as a likely target for human colonisation because of its proximity to Earth and possible stores of water. Current ideas for using Mars as a planetary base involve setting up protected colonies. A different possibility of terraforming Mars could involve replicating the biotransformation processes that occurred on Earth but over a shorter time-scale. Accelerated evolution using microbial genome engineering technologies has the potential to create new microbial species that are specially adapted for terraforming Mars.

Strategies for microbial terraforming of Mars

Building complex ecosystems on Mars will require microorganisms as the first layer of life. Therefore, we need to understand about the distribution, community structure and more importantly the underlying ecological principles of microorganisms on Earth in order to design and engineer microbial systems for Mars. The geochemistry of Mars is very different to that on Earth and it also experiences extremes of temperature. Therefore, we will need to construct species with metabolic pathways specialised to grow in these conditions. Such species will likely withstand large temperature variations and be tolerant to nutrient and radiation stress.

Significant progress has been made in genetic engineering of microorganisms including the development of DNA recombineering and CRISPR (clustered regularly interspersed short palindromic repeat) technologies. Advancements in synthetic DNA technology have already have already enabled the construction of cells with entirely synthetic genomes. Once generated, it might be necessary to find protected niches on Mars to send these microorganisms to help prepare for the arrival of the first human settlers. The first human colonies will likely consist of biospheres that will require these microorganisms to support plants and help sustain the ecosystem. The biospheres could also be used as nurseries to test new species of microorganisms before seeding the other parts of the planet. The continuous introduction of new microbial species evolved to grow in the transformed conditions could help grow the new ecosystem.

The dangers of artificial microbial evolution on Mars

An overreliance on microbial life support systems over mechano-chemical ones possess the inherent danger that the microbial systems on Mars can collapse due to unknown environmental factors or perhaps due to the evolution of viruses that can infect them. Several levels of redundancy might need to be built into the ecosystem for its successful establishment. Ultimately, the expectation for Mars as Earth II should not exist and Mars might not become full habitable or stay stable long-term.

Ideally, will need to preserve the Martian environment and also search exhaustively for any endogenous Martian life. However, if life currently exist on Mars, no matter how simple it may be, we will be faced with the biggest ethical dilemma in human history – do we have the right to invade their world. As the technology picks up pace, these are questions humanity needs to seriously consider.

 

Figures:

1 A Mass of Viscous Flow Features
Viscous, lobate flow features are commonly found at the bases of slopes in the midlatitudes of Mars, and are often associated with gullies.
These features are bound by ridges that resemble terrestrial moraines, suggesting that these deposits are ice-rich, or may have been ice-rich in the past. The source of the ice is unclear, but there is some thought that it is deposited from the atmosphere during periods of high obliquity, also known as axial tilt.
The flow features in this image are particularly massive and the bounding scarps appear very high standing and are layered as well.
The map is projected here at a scale of 25 centimeters (9.8 inches) per pixel. [The original image scale is 25.9 centimeters (10.2 inches) per pixel (with 1 x 1 binning); objects on the order of 82 centimeters (32.2 inches) across are resolved.] North is up.
The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA‘s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona
Editor: Tony Greicius

3 Scars of Erosion
This large crescent dune in Kaiser Crater shows the scars of many types of seasonal erosional activities. Along its downwind slope are large gullies which are active during winter, when frost drives dune material downslope, carving out channels and creating fan-shaped aprons.
On the upwind slope (bottom), dust devil tracks are visible: dark lines and curliques created during the spring season by small wind vortices vacuuming up a thin layer of dust and exposing the dark dune sand.
Note: Both the cutout and the above image are rotated so that North is to the right.
The map is projected here at a scale of 25 centimeters (9.8 inches) per pixel. [The original image scale is 25.3 centimeters (10 inches) per pixel (with 1 x 1 binning); objects on the order of 76 centimeters (30 inches) across are resolved.] North is up.
The University of Arizona, Tucson, operates HiRISE, which was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies
Corp., Boulder, Colo. NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter Project for NASA‘s Science Mission Directorate, Washington.
Editor: Tony Greicius

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