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Author Topic: Can we genetically engineer life to survive on Mars?  (Read 7304 times)

Offline Supercryptid

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I saw this article: http://www.spacedaily.com/news/food-01c.html, with an interesting quote:

Quote
"I have no doubt that we can get plants to survive on Mars," Ferl said. "When we do, we will have shown that Earth-evolved life is capable of thriving in distant worlds, and we will have set the stage for human colonization."

Do you believe that it will be possible to create organisms capable of surviving on the present day Mars?

Apparently the soil is good enough to grow asparagus: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/martian-soil-good-enough-for-asparagus-855993.html

The temperature, lack of water, and thin atmosphere would be the largest obstacles. Solar energy, however, is still present as is carbon dioxide gas. Although they are less abundant than on Earth, a plant with a slow metabolism may still be able to make use of them.

As for the temperature, it may be wise to create a plant that can survive being frozen for long periods of time. When the temperatures increase sufficiently, some of the water might thaw out and allow metabolism to continue. Putting solutes in water makes it harder to freeze. Transplant the appropriate antifreeze genes from the wood frog or a bacterium species.

As for radiation, we have plenty of hardy creatures on Earth that can survive huge doses (cockroaches, anyone?)

Obtaining water is one of the most difficult problems. Can any kind of liquid water solutions persist on Mars under any given temperatures? Apparently a hydrogen peroxide-water solution has been speculated as a possibility: http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap070828.html

Perhaps over time, the plant could slowly extend its roots into the permafrost, secreting a hydrogen peroxide-water mixture to help melt and absorb some of the ice.

For the majority of its life, the plant would probably be frozen, only to thaw out just enough to kick start a super-slow metabolism before freezing again. Might take a really long time to grow and reproduce...but might it be possible?
« Last Edit: 17/06/2011 06:15:52 by Supercryptid »


 

Offline CliffordK

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Can we genetically engineer life to survive on Mars?
« Reply #1 on: 17/06/2011 07:10:03 »
I have little doubt that plants should be able to grow in "alien dirt".  Here on Earth, plants have invaded the harshest, "virgin" terratory.  For example, pumice seems to be relatively fertile.  While it may be slow in some cases, the plants can conquer lava flows. 

The biggest issues are:

Water.
Temperature
Pressure (perhaps).
Humidity.

Before sending plants to Mars, one should be able to simulate the Martian conditions here on Earth.

Set up a pressure chamber with a "Martian Atmosphere".
And, hit it with Martian temperatures.

There would be two approaches.  One is to configure a Greenhouse that can simulate an Earth-Like atmosphere, harvest water vapor from the atmosphere (0.03%), as well as carbon dioxide and Nitrogen.  Perhaps pressurized, perhaps tried at Martian pressures. 

Another issue.  Not very many plants can produce Ammonia.  So, the choice of plant should be able to produce its own ammonia, otherwise its life will be very limited.

The other option would be to try to find plants that would thrive in a Martian climate.  Perhaps Bristlecone Pine, or something from the Arctic Tundra.  Or lichens from Antarctica.

I'm not seeing any updates, so I assume this mission is still in the planning stages.  I still think one should be able to simulate the Martian conditions in a pressure chamber, and it would be much better to spend a few hundred thousand dollars in full-scale simulations here on Earth before spending a few hundred million on sending it of to Mars.

I'm more interested in the possibility of a lunar colony.

I wonder if there are any "food" plants that could be grown in full sunlight (no night).  Planting to harvest in 27 days.  Antarctica still might be a good place to look for fast growing plants with short growing seasons that like long days...  and very cold winters.
 

Offline CliffordK

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Can we genetically engineer life to survive on Mars?
« Reply #2 on: 17/06/2011 07:15:44 »
One should be able to build a machine to extract water from the air.  (0.03%).  Perhaps run a concentrator at night when temperatures drop down to −63 C to −87 C.  Perhaps one could get it to condense out with a simple air compressor.
 

Offline Don_1

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Can we genetically engineer life to survive on Mars?
« Reply #3 on: 17/06/2011 13:21:42 »
It would be a bit of a jump to start growing asparagus on Mars. I rather think, if it were possible, that it would be much better to start with something far less complex, such as algae or perhaps fungi. But even then, you would be missing out a billion or so of evolution.

There can be no doubting that plants turned this planet from an inhospitable hell hole into what we have today. Animals, by contrast, have played a very minor role. But then the early plants did have a great deal to work with. A rich atmosphere, endless water, light and equally important, darkness, pressure, gravity and warmth.

Though plants are extremely adaptable to almost any conditions here on Earth, to remove or drastically reduce everything a plant needs to survive is probably well beyond the scope of GM to bring about the adaptations which would be required for such an extreme change of conditions.

It might be easier to construct a sealed chamber here on Earth into which simple plants are introduced and the conditions within the chamber gradually altered from Earth type to Martian type. Despite the fact that plant generations come and go far quicker than animal generations, it would still be a very, very long process, with no guarantee of success.

I think the #1 problem is the lack of atmosphere. Plants can alter the chemical composition of an atmosphere, but they can't create an atmosphere.

All the above said, it should be considered that in millions of years to come, it just might be that Mars will become more hospitable as our sun gradually increases in size, while Earth may become more like Venus. There, that should give the 'doomsday' nutters something to talk about.

Woh, woh and thrice woh, the end is nigh!!!
 

Offline CliffordK

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Can we genetically engineer life to survive on Mars?
« Reply #4 on: 17/06/2011 19:59:59 »
There can be no doubting that plants turned this planet from an inhospitable hell hole into what we have today. Animals, by contrast, have played a very minor role.

Many plants, of course, developed a symbiotic relationship with various types of insects and animals.  Bees and other insects pollinate flowers.  Earthworms process the soil.  Many plants depend on animals for seed distribution.  And nothing beats a good cow-pie for fertilizer.

One shouldn't ignore the role of the prokaryotes and fungi which provide a vital role in decomposition & "recycling", without which the plants would quickly use up their resources, and dye off.

As far as creating an atmosphere.
Many rocks are made out of silicates (silicon oxides). 
In theory, one should be able to extract the oxygen from the rocks.  Perhaps one could engineer a type of bacteria to do it, however, that might also be very dangerous as one would want a self-limiting reaction.

If you look at Nobil Gases in Earth's Atmosphere.
Argon > Neon > Helium > Krypton
In contrast to Jupiter
Helium > Neon > Argon > Krypton

That would indicate that Earth tends to loose gaseous molecules with a molecular weight < 20, and hold onto gases with a molecular weight starting somewhere between 20 and 40.  Nitrogen and Oxygen both form dimers with molecular weights of 28 and 32.  Water vapor is very light with a molecular weight of 18, and would likely be lost if there wasn't the "Cold Trap" with the chilly upper troposphere.

It is unclear whether Mars would loose atmospheric Oxygen and Nitrogen.  And, one would have to make sure a "cold trap" existed before introducing atmospheric water.  But, my belief is that the thin atmosphere and low Oxygen/Nitrogen concentration indicates an inability to retain those molecules. 

It is possible that one could generate Oxygen at a rate faster than the planet would naturally loose oxygen, but it would be dangerous to be wasteful with such a vital resource.

 

Offline Ophiolite

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Can we genetically engineer life to survive on Mars?
« Reply #5 on: 04/07/2011 07:29:38 »
Do you believe that it will be possible to create organisms capable of surviving on the present day Mars?
It will not be necessary to create such organisms: many already exist. As Don_1 pointed out, you seem to have leaped over a couple of billion years of evolution and focused on plants. There are plenty of archaea and eubacteria that would be perfectly at home in a variety of Martian environments.

The problem if you wish to have plants survive there is the lack of nitrogen in the soil. That is the stumbling block that needs to be addressed.
 

Offline Supercryptid

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Can we genetically engineer life to survive on Mars?
« Reply #6 on: 04/07/2011 20:38:13 »
Perhaps theoretically, extremophiles could survive in underground deposits of liquid water on Mars, but I don't know if there is consensus among scientists that such locations exist for certain. All life as we know it requires liquid water. Extremophiles may be capable to "shutting down" under extreme conditions by forming endospores, but those forms are useless if conditions never change sufficiently to allow them to come out of that state.
 

Offline Ophiolite

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Can we genetically engineer life to survive on Mars?
« Reply #7 on: 05/07/2011 11:28:14 »
Perhaps theoretically, extremophiles could survive in underground deposits of liquid water on Mars, but I don't know if there is consensus among scientists that such locations exist for certain.
I do not take such a cautious position on this issue. Here are some absolutes:
1. Water is present on Mars.
2. Conditions are such that liquid water will exist at quite shallow depths.
3. Chemolithotrophs, were they to be present, should have no difficulty flourishing in such an environment.

Less likely, but still plausible, would be organisms inhabiting the very near surface, or near surface at the polar caps.
 

Offline Supercryptid

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Can we genetically engineer life to survive on Mars?
« Reply #8 on: 06/07/2011 06:25:56 »
I hope you're right, Ophiolite, because I certainly want to look at Google News some day and see the headline "NASA confirms Martian Microbes".
 

Offline Ophiolite

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Can we genetically engineer life to survive on Mars?
« Reply #9 on: 06/07/2011 07:58:06 »
I hope you're right, Ophiolite, because I certainly want to look at Google News some day and see the headline "NASA confirms Martian Microbes".
Keep in mind that I was addressing the OP as to whether we could bioengineer organisms that would survive on Mars. My argument is that such organisms already exist. I am less secure about whether analogues of these are already present on Mars. I am not convinced that life necessarily arises easily and I maintain we presently lack enough data to reach a meaningful conclusion on the matter.

That said, if life is somewhat ubiquitous in the right environment, then a) I think Mars still is the right environment for 'simple' organisms and b)I think there is a 15% chance such life was detected by the Viking landers almost forty years ago. 
 

Offline CliffordK

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Can we genetically engineer life to survive on Mars?
« Reply #10 on: 07/07/2011 00:58:00 »
I find it doubtful that if intelligent life has not developed on the other planets by now, that it would ever spontaneously develop over the next 5 billion years estimated lifespan of our solar system.  And it may be that Earth is the only place in our solar system where life more complex than algae could develop on its own.

Should we maintain the other planets sterile from Earth plants and animals, at least until we can ascertain with certainty whether or not there is in fact microbial life?

Or...
Should we attempt to terraform and colonize the planets with Terrestrial plants, animals, and microbes?

The articles above suggested maintaining a log of gene sequences of the plants sent to other planets.  But, creating the biosphere...  with animals...  would involve adding both plants, as well as decomposers, and perhaps hundreds, or thousands of different microbes, especially if the goal is to find something well suited to the alien environment.

And, unless one selects an infant astronaut at birth, it might be impossible to completely sterilize a human being (although I could deal with selecting against certain microbes such as those that cause tooth decay, as well as avoiding the cold and flu).

So...
Should we wait indefinitely for remote controlled archeological expeditions...  with the hopes they will in fact turn up nothing?  Or, should we move towards colonization now?
 

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Can we genetically engineer life to survive on Mars?
« Reply #10 on: 07/07/2011 00:58:00 »

 

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