How Germs Could Help Us Live on Mars

06/09/2013 11:37 EDT | Updated 08/09/2013 05:12 EDT

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.

Curiosity: Mars Science Laboratory's Rover