We may need to get over our knee-jerk reaction to GMO crops, as they may be necessary to survive on Mars. The study of genetically modifying organisms so that they can survive on spaceships and other planets is called ‘space synthetic biology’ (1).
The harsh conditions on Mars present many challenges when it comes to growing food there. Space synthetic biologists are genetically changing organisms so that they can be more ‘space-worthy’. For example, organisms need to be resistant to heat and radiation. If the organisms astronauts bring with them can’t survive on Mars, then they may not be able to survive on Mars.
Lynn Rothschild, head of the synthetic biology programme at NASA’s Ames Research Center, has led a group who took genes from extreme bacteria (called ‘extremophiles’) and inserted them into E. coli to create hybrid organisms that can resist extreme pH, temperature, and dryness (2). They dubbed it the Hell Cell.
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Amor Menezes of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences recommends in a report that we develop space-friendly microbes that can turn byproducts of wastewater treatment into food (3). While that may not sound too appetising, it is certainly a sustainable vision. Menezes highlights, however, that this food does have to qualify as “nutrient-dense biomass that supplements astronaut dry-food while being versatile in flavor and texture.”
The effects of microgravity on microorganisms will complicate efforts to engineer organisms for use in space (4). For a synthetic biologist, it would be a great achievement to engineer GMOs that can help produce food and oxygen, or serve as probiotics for astronauts. But these genetic programmes may be changed in the presence of microgravity, due to the organism’s natural stress response mechanisms. It is also incredibly expensive and slow to study this phenomenon, so it may be some time before new versions of life are built that can survive in space.
However, this kind of work is very important. And scientists are ambitious about their hopes for what GMOs can achieve when it comes to space travel and the colonisation of Mars. Synthetic biologists think we could use GMOs to biomine the regolith for metals (5), produce biofuels (6), grow enhanced algae as food (7), replace medications that have degraded in cosmic radiations (8), and terraform Mars (9).
Indeed, the possible applications of GMOs are wide in scope and very promising. It seems that they are essential if we are to survive on Mars.