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How Germs Could Help Us Live on Mars

Posted: 06/09/2013 11:03 am

At the end of May, 1971, NASA undertook another one of its great leaps for humanity by launching Mariner 9, a satellite destined not for orbit around Earth, but Mars. Around the same time, a highly regarded professor at Cornell, Carl Sagan, hypothesized that Mars might have the potential to become habitable. Within a year, photos from the satellite all but confirmed Sagan's beliefs and led to a new branch of science, now known as terraforming.

Now 40 years later, we are closer than ever to knowing just how to turn the inhospitable Red Planet into one that could someday be our second home. Not surprisingly, germs will play a significant role.

Bacteria and fungi are well recognized not only being the beginning of life here on Earth but also transforming the planet for higher organisms to come. In the context of Mars, there is little doubt that the first colonizers should be microbes, although until recently, they were not your run of the mill organisms, such as E. coli, Listeria, Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. They all have specific needs to survive including a nice environmental temperature that is above -15 degrees Celsius and below 63 degrees; a supply of nutrients such as sugar and proteins and of course, water. A simple view of the climate of a Martian day would suggest these germs would be dead in a heartbeat.

Instead, a different type of bacterium candidate is needed, one that can withstand extremes of temperature, nutrient starvation and the ability to outlast a camel without water. Together, these germs are known as the extremophiles and they can be found in some of the harshest environments on Earth including the depths of the oceans, the heat of thermal vents, and the dry conditions of the desert. Although they may not be widely known in the public, in the microbiological world, they are so important, they have a scientific journal devoted to them.

But the mere discovery of extremeophiles is not enough to set a timeline for terraforming Mars. Much like astronauts, they need to be tested to determine if they have the "right stuff." Thankfully, researchers don't need to send petri dishes on the 56 million kilometer journey to the planet. Instead, they can test them in several Mars-like environments created in the lab as well as a Mars-like environment here on Earth, the Atacama in Chile. Several bacteria with names such as Cryomyces, Chroococcidiopsis, and Matteia have been tested for their ability to withstand the Martian environment as well as utilize the resources there to create the necessities of life, carbon dioxide, oxygen, nitrogen and water.

But this week, a team from the University of Florida and the Russian Academy of Sciences changed the terraforming rules and have given a greater sense of hope for the future. They published their discovery of several Mars-friendly bacterial strains from one of the harshest regions known: the Siberian permafrost. The bacteria were not novel or previously unseen, instead, they were found to be from the genus, Carnobacterium, better known as meat spoilers as well as fish probiotics.

The identification of such beneficial germs as potential Mars inhabitants is simply a goldmine for terraforming researchers as this bacterium can potentially play a double role. At the onset of the process, the bacteria can be sent as part of a terraforming package to start forming the necessities for higher life. It would act as most probiotics might to survive -- utilize the organic food left over from its dying counterparts. As more nutrients would become available, the bacteria would ensure that the life cycle could continue. When fish would be introduced, the bacteria would then be able to help them survive the foreign conditions. Though it is too early to tell if Carnobacterium could be the hinge to turning Mars into Earth, there is obvious excitement. But even more importantly, this opens the door to test other previously doubted environmentally friendly bacteria to see if they too could prove useful.

Despite this achievement, the timeline for terraforming hasn't changed much. While the process may be easier as a result of this finding, the initiation of such a venture is still decades away. Yet, as plans continue to start colonizing the planet in 2023, with more missions scheduled for the 2030s, the distance between science fiction and fact continues to shorten. While the majority of focus continues to be on Mars, there are already other hopes that should terraforming prove to be a success, other planetary bodies may soon follow, including Europa. While we may never see this in our lifetime, there is a definite hope that in the not too distant future, we'll be able to add another line to our physical addresses after country: planet.

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  • Curiosity at Work on Mars

    This artist's concept depicts the rover Curiosity, of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, as it uses its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to investigate the composition of a rock surface. ChemCam fires laser pulses at a target and views the resulting spark with a telescope and spectrometers to identify chemical elements. The laser is actually in an invisible infrared wavelength, but is shown here as visible red light for purposes of illustration.

  • Daybreak At Gale Crater

    This computer-generated view depicts part of Mars at the boundary between darkness and daylight, with an area including Gale Crater beginning to catch morning light.

  • Curiosity Launch Vehicle

    The Atlas V 541 vehicle was selected for the Mars Science Laboratory mission because it has the right liftoff capability for the heavy weight requirements of the rover and its spacecraft.

  • Mars Science Laboratory Spacecraft During Cruise

    This is an artist's concept of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft during its cruise phase between launch and final approach to Mars. The spacecraft includes a disc-shaped cruise stage (on the left) attached to the aeroshell. The spacecraft's rover (Curiosity) and descent stage are tucked inside the aeroshell.

  • Curiosity Approaching Mars

    The Curiosity rover is safely tucked inside the spacecraft's aeroshell. The mission's approach phase begins 45 minutes before the spacecraft enters the Martian atmosphere. It lasts until the spacecraft enters the atmosphere.

  • Curiosity Inside Aeroshell

    The Curiosity rover and the spacecraft's descent stage are safely tucked inside the aeroshell at this point. The aeroshell includes a heat shield (on the right, facing in the direction of travel through the atmosphere) and backshell. The diameter of the aeroshell is 14.8 feet (4.5 meters), the largest ever used for a mission to Mars.

  • Mars Science Laboratory Guided Entry At Mars

    The mission's entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase begins when the spacecraft reaches the top of Martian atmosphere, about 81 miles (131 kilometers) above the surface of the Gale crater landing area, and ends with the rover safe and sound on the surface of Mars. During the approximately seven minutes of EDL, the spacecraft decelerates from a velocity of about 13,200 miles per hour (5,900 meters per second) at the top of the atmosphere, to stationary on the surface.

  • Deceleration of Mars Science Laboratory in Martian Atmosphere

    This artist's concept depicts the interaction of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft with the upper atmosphere of Mars during the entry, descent and landing of the Curiosity rover onto the Martian surface.

  • Mars Science Laboratory Parachute

    This is an artist's concept of the Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover parachute system.

  • Curiosity While On Parachute

    This is an artist's concept of NASA's Curiosity rover tucked inside the Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft's backshell while the spacecraft is descending on a parachute toward Mars. The parachute is attached to the top of the backshell. In the scene depicted here, the spacecraft's heat shield has already been jettisoned.

  • Curiosity And Descent Stage

    This is an artist's concept of the rover and descent stage for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft during the final minute before the rover, Curiosity, touches down on the surface of Mars.

  • Curiosity's Sky Crane Maneuver

    The entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of the Mars Science Laboratory mission begins when the spacecraft reaches the Martian atmosphere, about 81 miles (131 kilometers) above the surface of the Gale crater landing area, and ends with the rover Curiosity safe and sound on the surface of Mars.

  • Curiosity Touching Down

    This artist's concept depicts the moment that NASA's Curiosity rover touches down onto the Martian surface.

  • A Moment After Curiosity's Touchdown

    This artist's concept depicts the moment immediately after NASA's Curiosity rover touches down onto the Martian surface.

  • Curiosity Mars Rover

    This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life.

  • Curiosity's Close-Up

    In this picture, the mast, or rover's "head," rises to about 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) above ground level, about as tall as a basketball player. This mast supports two remote-sensing instruments: the Mast Camera, or "eyes," for stereo color viewing of surrounding terrain and material collected by the arm; and, the ChemCam instrument, which is a laser that vaporizes material from rocks up to about 9 meters (30 feet) away and determines what elements the rocks are made of.

  • Mars Rover Curiosity

    This artist concept features NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover, a mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life.

 

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