Build a Mars base with a box of engineered bugs

04 October 2012 by Andy Coghlan
Magazine issue 2885

THE next time humans set foot on an alien world, they may not travel alone. Small, lightweight “bug boxes” packed full of engineered microbes could make life on hostile planets a lot more liveable.

Pioneering settlers on a distant world will require food, fuel and shelter if they are to survive, but bringing bulky supplies from Earth is far too costly. Synthetic biology offers another option. Microbes weigh precious little, and would take up next to no space on a spacecraft, but once the mission lands – on Mars, say – they could multiply by feeding on the materials available there. The products of their labour could provide the building blocks essential for a human settlement.

NASA has already begun research to realise this dream, says Lynn Rothschild at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. Rothschild is leader of NASA’s new Synthetic Biology Initiative, which aims to build designer microbes for future crewed space missions. She shared her vision at last week’s BioDesign Forum in Cambridge, UK.

Synthetic biology lies at the crossroads of biology and engineering. Its practitioners have built a biological toolkit consisting of chunks of genes, called biobricks, each of which performs a specific function – making a bacterium generate natural antifreeze molecules, for example. Biobricks can be inserted into other microbes to give them that function.

Using the approach, a microbe with the potential to survive on an alien world can become one that could sustain human life there.

Read more: Build a Mars base with a box of engineered bugs – space – 04 October 2012 – New Scientist.

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