DARPA to use genetically engineered organisms to convert the inhospitable Martian atmosphere into a suitable atmosphere which would help humans to colonize Mars

DARPA to use genetically engineered organisms to convert the inhospitable Martian atmosphere into a suitable atmosphere which would help humans to colonize Mars

Mars is known for its inhospitable and barren landscape; however DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) plans to Terraform the Red planet with genetically engineered organisms which would eventually transform Mars into a more hospitable place that would be capable of supporting human life.

For a long time, scientists and even science fiction writers have been pondering on ways to transform the extreme environmental conditions on Mars making it a better place to live in.

When compared to other planets of the Solar System,  Mars is the planet which is more or less similar to Earth. Lets us check some similarities between the two planets:

  • Mars does not have any oceans and hence it appears to be smaller in size than Earth; however surprisingly the total amount of land area of both the planets is same.
  • In comparison to Earth, the gravity of Mars is 62 percent, thus a space traveler who would weigh 200 pounds on Earth would still weight 124 pounds on Mars.
  • Earth takes 24 hours to complete one rotation, thus we have day and night spanned between 24 hours. Mars, too takes 24 hours for one rotation.
  • Earth has permanent ice caps and the Red planet too shows the presence of similar structures.
  • Earth’s axis is tilted at an angle in relation to the Sun and Mars too shows a similar tilt.

Researchers believe that all these similarities between the two planets and the fact that Mars is placed next to Earth in the Solar System indicates that the Red planet could logically be the next one to witness the human colonization.

However, there are few glitches which does not allow human colonization on Mars. One of the major challenge is the freezing atmosphere which averages to be -50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees below zero Fahrenheit). Next, the entire planet is barren and without water. So if NASA plans to send colonists to the Mars then the astronauts would have to transport water and all the food crops from Earth to Mars. The Red planet is also subject to enormous, powerful sand storms which are known to last for weeks together. To add to all these inhospitable conditions, the atmosphere on Mars comprises of Carbon dioxide instead of Oxygen.

Researchers at DARPA are trying to find out ways to make use of genetically engineering organisms such as algae, bacteria and plants so as to drastically transform the climate of the Red planet by heating it up and making it more hospitable and supportive to human lives. This is Terraforming, a process of intentionally changing the climate of a planet so that it can support human life.

While addressing the DARPA-hosted conference, Alicia Jackson, deputy director of the Biological Technologies Office at DARPA, 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.” Jackson also pointed to an artist’s rendering of transformed Mars.

Jackson, mentioned that DARPA and its partners have designed the “Google Maps of genomes.” As per Jackson, this system will enable scientists to quickly analyze the genomes of various organisms that are already existing on Earth. Further, scientists hope to identify the specific genes and also locate them on the genome of an organism. Researchers, then plan to use permutation and combination methods to mix-match these genes from multiple organisms in order to create a totally new form of life which would be able to transform the Martian atmosphere and make it more hospitable. These will be genetically engineered organisms.

Jackson said: “There are anywhere from 30 million to 30 billion organisms on this Earth. We use two right now for engineering biology.” She also added: “I want to use any organism that has properties I want – I want to quickly map it and quickly engineer it. With this, the goal is to, within a day, sequence and find where I can best engineer an organism.”

Researchers have also suggested few other ideas which could alter the climatic conditions of Mars. One of them is creating an extreme green house effect by melting the frozen carbon dioxide or dry ice which is present in huge numbers within the polar ice caps. Basically this would result in thickening of the Martian atmosphere which would then be able to hold the Solar energy and ultimately warm the planet. As per some researchers this process could lead to a condition wherein “water rain” would fall from the sky. Further, researchers also feel that with the help of the spatial giant mirrors light could be reflected to the surface of the planet to melt water ice present as permafrost beneath the surface of Mars. This method could be utilized to form the planetary seas in the Hellas Basin and the northern lowlands.

For now, scientists believe the best method to colonize Mars with human species would be by terraforming. However, the DARPA researchers are hoping to first test the capabilities of these genetically engineered organisms on Earth. As per Jackson, these synthetic organisms can be placed in extreme conditions such as natural disaster or man-made disaster areas and then check if they are able to survive these drastic environmental conditions and further if they can restore the area back to normal conditions which could support life.

Motherboard reports further mentioned that DARPA researchers believe that if these genetically engineered organisms are able to survive the tests and bring about the required climatic changes on Earth then humans could definitely envisage making a lot of changes in the space as well.

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