Can we develop plants that will survive on Mars?

16 October 2011


Are any scientists involved in developing plant-life to survive on Mars as suggested by Carl Sagan in Part 5 of Cosmos?


John - Well of course, terraforming on Mars would be a great idea. The popular thought is that it's a really dead planet and that it doesn't offer much for organisms. I did advance once an idea that we might dump activated sludge onto Mars. This has got all kinds of organisms in it, extremophiles, in the extreme in fact. Some of them might find a niche there, but in terms of life as we know it, you'd need various support systems already there - like water in a plentiful supply. While we're still debating where that is on Mars and whether there is sufficient, I don't think we can advance this. But certainly, if you did send there some extremophiles, they might be able to survive - if there are some of the basic necessities. And that could of course evolve into organisms that could make it more habitable, but I think the fact is that it really is dead as it would appear to us at the moment and in terms of whether it could support the kind of life as we know it.

Chris - One additional thought that I have in listening to what John has said there is of course, there are big challenges still to think about how we can get plants to grow in other areas on Earth particularly where drought is a major problem and the desert regions. So there is plenty to be done down here as well as thinking about up there.

John - Yes. I think that's a very, very good point that Chris makes. In fact, we've just started an EU funded program in which we will find plants growing in arid regions in Africa which will then allow us to accept aridification in regions where we're already seeing some problems with increased drought. These will be plants that are used as companion plants to protect the main crops from pests and disease. We're even involving local people in this with citizen botanists, looking around for the kind of plants that might be useful.

Ben - It must be really useful to have salt tolerant plants as well because obviously, supply of freshwater is a problem in large parts of the world.

John - Yes and quite a lot of work is being done of course in transferring the traits from already salt tolerant plants to plants that we might more easily recognise as crop plants and that will involve various new technologies. Of course, including GM.

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