Author Topic: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles  (Read 3788 times)

Offline sanman

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Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« on: 09/21/2016 12:21 PM »
Interesting story about tardigrades (aka. "water bears") which are microscopic creatures able to withstand all sorts of extreme conditions, whether in temperature or radiation from space:

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-37384466

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2016/09/20/water-bears-latest-superpower-proteins-that-protect-them-from-radiation/




So I was wondering whether or not we can use genetic engineering and darwinist selective breeding techniques to come up with our own extremophiles that would be adapted to live and thrive under Mars ambient conditions, so that we could use them either as a food source, or possibly to synthesize other useful substances, or to bioremediate, or otherwise help terraform Mars.

Is it possible for suitably beefed-up multicellular life to survive on the Martian surface and to harness incoming solar radiation via photosynthesis to supply a food chain, and thus support an ecosystem? Or could this possibly even be done underground?

Offline Jim

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #1 on: 09/21/2016 12:28 PM »

Is it possible for suitably beefed-up multicellular life to survive on the Martian surface and to harness incoming solar radiation via photosynthesis to supply a food chain, and thus support an ecosystem? Or could this possibly even be done underground?

Just skip the intermediate steps, just genetic engineering to create humans with green skin and they can use photosynthesis to produce food.

Really, you don't need to ask if any new technology is applicable to spaceflight

Offline ncb1397

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #2 on: 09/23/2016 05:04 PM »

Is it possible for suitably beefed-up multicellular life to survive on the Martian surface and to harness incoming solar radiation via photosynthesis to supply a food chain, and thus support an ecosystem? Or could this possibly even be done underground?

Just skip the intermediate steps, just genetic engineering to create humans with green skin and they can use photosynthesis to produce food.

Really, you don't need to ask if any new technology is applicable to spaceflight

Human skin doesn't have the surface area to completely augment caloric intake. Applies double at Mars distance.
« Last Edit: 09/23/2016 05:05 PM by ncb1397 »

Offline SLC17A5

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #3 on: 09/23/2016 05:18 PM »
« Last Edit: 09/23/2016 05:19 PM by SLC17A5 »

Offline DrRobin

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #4 on: 09/24/2016 02:41 PM »
Wow, I just recently registered here at NSF (though I've followed the field avidly for many years), but as a wetware engineer myself, did not expect to have much to say here among the actual rocket scientists!. I try to RTFA the peer-reviewed article (http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms12808) itself before commenting, which I finally had a chance to do yesterday. The answer to your question hinges on what you mean by "possible". No, right now we could not create a multicellular creature that could "thrive" on the Martian surface, but it is a reasonably conservative prediction that this will be "possible" on the timescale where humans might get there (decades). The basic insight I think was first popularized by the physicist, Freeman Dyson, making the point that one could in principle engineer an organism where energy collection and metabolism can be spatially separated, with a vacuum and radiation-hardened light-collector at the surface connected by stem-and-roots to a sub-surface body that melts water and collects nutrients (a space plant). I am not finding his original paper, but he discusses the idea in an Atlantic article (http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97nov/space.htm). When I cloned my first gene in the '80's, it was still a big deal to engineer small viruses (my field) but now Craig Venter's group has synthesized whole bacterial genomes from scratch (a thousand-fold larger), so Dyson's ideas are not that far off. In the case of the Tardigrade paper, this organism has multiple mechanisms making it very tolerant to extreme conditions, but relevant to NSF, they show that just one gene that binds to and protects DNA from radiation damage can confer upon human cells in culture substantial resistance to radiation. Given recent progress in precise gene-engineering, it is not at all far-feteched that by the time humans are going to Mars in significant numbers, we will be arguing over not the possibility, but the bioethics of engineering colonists to be better adapted to their new home.

Offline Rocket Science

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #5 on: 09/24/2016 02:57 PM »
Wow, I just recently registered here at NSF (though I've followed the field avidly for many years), but as a wetware engineer myself, did not expect to have much to say here among the actual rocket scientists!. I try to RTFA the peer-reviewed article (http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms12808) itself before commenting, which I finally had a chance to do yesterday. The answer to your question hinges on what you mean by "possible". No, right now we could not create a multicellular creature that could "thrive" on the Martian surface, but it is a reasonably conservative prediction that this will be "possible" on the timescale where humans might get there (decades). The basic insight I think was first popularized by the physicist, Freeman Dyson, making the point that one could in principle engineer an organism where energy collection and metabolism can be spatially separated, with a vacuum and radiation-hardened light-collector at the surface connected by stem-and-roots to a sub-surface body that melts water and collects nutrients (a space plant). I am not finding his original paper, but he discusses the idea in an Atlantic article (http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97nov/space.htm). When I cloned my first gene in the '80's, it was still a big deal to engineer small viruses (my field) but now Craig Venter's group has synthesized whole bacterial genomes from scratch (a thousand-fold larger), so Dyson's ideas are not that far off. In the case of the Tardigrade paper, this organism has multiple mechanisms making it very tolerant to extreme conditions, but relevant to NSF, they show that just one gene that binds to and protects DNA from radiation damage can confer upon human cells in culture substantial resistance to radiation. Given recent progress in precise gene-engineering, it is not at all far-feteched that by the time humans are going to Mars in significant numbers, we will be arguing over not the possibility, but the bioethics of engineering colonists to be better adapted to their new home.
Welcome to the forum! :) I followed the site since the early days then registered and finally a became Lifetime L2 member and never looked back... Too much to see and read, enjoy! 8)
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Offline sanman

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #6 on: 09/27/2016 04:31 PM »
Wow, I just recently registered here at NSF (though I've followed the field avidly for many years), but as a wetware engineer myself, did not expect to have much to say here among the actual rocket scientists!. I try to RTFA the peer-reviewed article (http://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms12808) itself before commenting, which I finally had a chance to do yesterday. The answer to your question hinges on what you mean by "possible". No, right now we could not create a multicellular creature that could "thrive" on the Martian surface, but it is a reasonably conservative prediction that this will be "possible" on the timescale where humans might get there (decades). The basic insight I think was first popularized by the physicist, Freeman Dyson, making the point that one could in principle engineer an organism where energy collection and metabolism can be spatially separated, with a vacuum and radiation-hardened light-collector at the surface connected by stem-and-roots to a sub-surface body that melts water and collects nutrients (a space plant). I am not finding his original paper, but he discusses the idea in an Atlantic article (http://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/issues/97nov/space.htm). When I cloned my first gene in the '80's, it was still a big deal to engineer small viruses (my field) but now Craig Venter's group has synthesized whole bacterial genomes from scratch (a thousand-fold larger), so Dyson's ideas are not that far off. In the case of the Tardigrade paper, this organism has multiple mechanisms making it very tolerant to extreme conditions, but relevant to NSF, they show that just one gene that binds to and protects DNA from radiation damage can confer upon human cells in culture substantial resistance to radiation. Given recent progress in precise gene-engineering, it is not at all far-feteched that by the time humans are going to Mars in significant numbers, we will be arguing over not the possibility, but the bioethics of engineering colonists to be better adapted to their new home.

Hi, welcome and many thanks for your post - even that Freeman Dyson article you linked to was interesting food for thought. It never occurred to me to ponder why animals evolved warm-bloodedness but plants did not - I assume that it's because animals are motile and thus capable of actively hunting for other organisms to eat them as richer energy sources, while poor plants are stationary and thus relegated to absorbing whatever useful nutrients are fortuitously available in their immediate vicinity. Plants are sort of trapped as bottom-feeders on the food chain, while we more complex motile creatures get to live life in the fast lane of munching on other complex creatures richer in energy, and using that to sustain our active lifestyle.

But so if it were possible for us to take plants which are "warm-blooded" (warm-sapped, whatever), and amplify these traits, would that be a crucial enabler to help them to survive or thrive on Mars?

Besides the aforementioned McMurdo Dry Valleys, mountain-tops seem to be places that better resemble Mars surface conditions as compared to the rest of the Earth: colder, drier, somewhat lower pressure. Since Mars is nearly hard vacuum, perhaps lower-elevation regions with slightly higher ambient pressure like Hellas Basin would offer slightly less harsh conditions.


Another thing is that if we could at least meet nature half-way, by manually creating large aqueous environments on the Martian surface - maybe some sort of surfactant-covered lakes/ponds that won't evaporate easily - then these could support some engineered aquatic life. Suppose we could create ponds/lakes in Hellas Basis, then perhaps they would be able to buffer the extreme temperature swings of the Martian day/night cycle, and offer a place where suitably adapted life could grow in a self-sustaining way.

How to get the point of self-sustainability? Could a self-sustaining eco-system under Mars ambient conditions be even remotely possible?

Offline DrRobin

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #7 on: 09/29/2016 05:21 PM »
In the short term (10-20 yr), it is almost certainly going to be easier to use conventional engineering (mirrors, fiber-optics, drilling and dredging equipment) to bring Martian light/heat energy, water ice, carbon/oxygen/nitrogen/etc., together in some relatively protected subsurface space and then let genetically engineered biology do the complex biochemistry to get the stuff you want (O2, water, food, structural materials, etc.). Enough is known at least about the surface materials on Mars that one could start now engineering organisms to do this using simulated Martian "soil" here on Earth. The chemistry is pretty harsh, but Terrestrial extremophiles have taught us that Life can adapt amazingly far, to a first pass wherever liquid water is possible. Getting Planetary Protection approval to use this on Mars is of course a whole 'nother story.

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #8 on: 09/29/2016 06:02 PM »
How to get the point of self-sustainability? Could a self-sustaining eco-system under Mars ambient conditions be even remotely possible?

I would say, no.

Micro life can adapt to Mars conditions. In tests some arctic lichen were able to metabolize and even grow somewhat. But metabolic growth would be way too small to be useful.

To be productive, some criteria of temperature, humidity and pressure would have to be met. Providing like at least 1 psi, sufficient humidity and temperatures in the range of 15°C and up should not be too hard and could stimulate high metabolic rates from well adapted species.

Offline KelvinZero

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #9 on: 09/30/2016 01:28 AM »
In the short term (10-20 yr), it is almost certainly going to be easier to use conventional engineering (mirrors, fiber-optics, drilling and dredging equipment) to bring Martian light/heat energy, water ice, carbon/oxygen/nitrogen/etc., together in some relatively protected subsurface space and then let genetically engineered biology do the complex biochemistry to get the stuff you want (O2, water, food, structural materials, etc.). Enough is known at least about the surface materials on Mars that one could start now engineering organisms to do this using simulated Martian "soil" here on Earth. The chemistry is pretty harsh, but Terrestrial extremophiles have taught us that Life can adapt amazingly far, to a first pass wherever liquid water is possible. Getting Planetary Protection approval to use this on Mars is of course a whole 'nother story.
This is one of my pet ideas. About planetary protection, this idea could be applied to icy worlds without even tidal heating with far less chance of containing native life than Mars. You could probably also do something similar with asteroids that are not even dwarf planets like Ceres. For example perhaps you just shovel icy regolith into a greenhouse bag in zero g, then add microbes that perform some sort of ISRU to extract hydrocarbons that can be used to create more plastic bags.

Offline sanman

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #10 on: 02/03/2017 03:16 AM »
Some researchers have developed a way for electronics to control bacterial gene expression:

http://wallstreetpit.com/112807-powerful-genetic-engineering-technique-bodies-talk-electronics/


So I'm wondering what the possible applications might be on Mars. I was thinking that in the case of ISRU, you could electronically signal your bacteria which metabolic pathway to use, depending on what type of raw materials are available. Maybe you could have some electronically-controlled bio-reactor which does this. Instead of having to select which bacteria are right for the situation, you could have a single type of bacteria which was like a swiss army knife, whose specific capabilities could be selectively activated by electronics.

Offline A_M_Swallow

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #11 on: 02/03/2017 03:31 AM »
Some researchers have developed a way for electronics to control bacterial gene expression:

http://wallstreetpit.com/112807-powerful-genetic-engineering-technique-bodies-talk-electronics/


So I'm wondering what the possible applications might be on Mars. I was thinking that in the case of ISRU, you could electronically signal your bacteria which metabolic pathway to use, depending on what type of raw materials are available. Maybe you could have some electronically-controlled bio-reactor which does this. Instead of having to select which bacteria are right for the situation, you could have a single type of bacteria which was like a swiss army knife, whose specific capabilities could be selectively activated by electronics.

The bacteria could have an ability to move and an ability to convert raw materials. That way the operator can send the bacteria to the correct part of the rock.

Offline sanman

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #12 on: 03/17/2017 07:01 AM »
Just ran across another interesting discovery on these tardigrade organisms, regarding how their unique proteins can withstand extreme conditions:

http://www.ibtimes.com/tardigrade-proteins-help-water-bears-survive-extreme-dehydration-2510167



Quote
Don’t let a tardigrade’s size fool you: they may be only 0.05 inches at most, but they are the most resilient life form known to humans. Despite being aquatic, they can live for over 30 years without water or even food; they have been known to survive through temperatures well above 200 degrees Fahrenheit and close to absolute zero (minus 460 degrees Fahrenheit); they can withstand high pressure, strong radiation and even the vacuum of outer space.

Perhaps if this resilience could be built into other proteins, it might allow for engineering/cultivation of more lifeforms which could be adapted to Mars conditions.
« Last Edit: 03/17/2017 07:02 AM by sanman »

Online guckyfan

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #13 on: 03/17/2017 11:45 AM »
Perhaps if this resilience could be built into other proteins, it might allow for engineering/cultivation of more lifeforms which could be adapted to Mars conditions.

They survive, but they don't metabolize under martian conditions. They just lie there and wait for better times.

The only organisms ever known to metabolize under martian conditions are a kind of arctic lichen. And those metabolize at rates that are not useful to us in any way, just too slow .

Offline sanman

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #14 on: 03/17/2017 10:58 PM »
Well, consider the huge temperature swings that occur across the Martian day-night cycle. If you could have an organism that can carry out metabolic activity during the day, but hibernate through the night, then maybe it could proliferate at the Martian equator or something.

Those Himalayan/Arctic lichens that you mention are still just naturally adapted to Earth conditions. No attempt has been made to try to artificially adapt them to even more extreme conditions not found on Earth. Who knows - maybe life can be made that adaptable.

Meanwhile, here's an article about possibly adapting the human body for better survival characteristics on Mars or in space:

http://gizmodo.com/will-humans-have-to-upgrade-their-bodies-to-survive-on-1793236286

Online guckyfan

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #15 on: 03/18/2017 05:17 AM »
Those Himalayan/Arctic lichens that you mention are still just naturally adapted to Earth conditions. No attempt has been made to try to artificially adapt them to even more extreme conditions not found on Earth. Who knows - maybe life can be made that adaptable.

Earth life can be only adapted so far. There is no way around the need for a minimum temperature for any appreciable metabolic rate. To have an in any way useful metabolic rate you need to at least raise ambient temperature.

Meanwhile, here's an article about possibly adapting the human body for better survival characteristics on Mars or in space:

http://gizmodo.com/will-humans-have-to-upgrade-their-bodies-to-survive-on-1793236286

To me that is majorly weird. The psychologic argument I just can't take that serious. People have always braved strange environments. The mark "Here there be dragons" was as serious a threat to seafarers as is the dangers of space are today. We are humans. We are adaptable, but mainly we adapt the environment to us. Elon Musk has very good reasons why he wants that large window on ITS. He has very good reasons why he wants those geodesic domes on Mars. We remain human.

The only valid concern raised IMO is the question of reproduction. I personally have little doubt but that doubt needs to be addressed. The only way of doing this is trying.

Offline A_M_Swallow

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #16 on: 03/18/2017 10:45 AM »
Those Himalayan/Arctic lichens that you mention are still just naturally adapted to Earth conditions. No attempt has been made to try to artificially adapt them to even more extreme conditions not found on Earth. Who knows - maybe life can be made that adaptable.

Earth life can be only adapted so far. There is no way around the need for a minimum temperature for any appreciable metabolic rate. To have an in any way useful metabolic rate you need to at least raise ambient temperature.
{snip}

Mammals solved that problem by going warm blood. If we can surround the creature by an insulating layer, possibly a near vacuum, it may have an internal temperature of say 10 degrees centigrade.

Online guckyfan

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #17 on: 03/18/2017 02:00 PM »

Mammals solved that problem by going warm blood. If we can surround the creature by an insulating layer, possibly a near vacuum, it may have an internal temperature of say 10 degrees centigrade.

Going warm blood has a high price in energy. Meaning it needs to get a lot of food. Where does the food come from?

Insulating? Yes, place it in a green house.

Offline Donosauro

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #18 on: 03/18/2017 02:52 PM »
Micro life can adapt to Mars conditions. In tests some arctic lichen were able to metabolize and even grow somewhat. But metabolic growth would be way too small to be useful.

This may be what guckyfan was referring to: http://www.planetary.org/blogs/guest-blogs/20120515-earth-life-survive-mars.html

Offline QuantumG

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #19 on: 03/24/2017 01:38 AM »
Micro life can adapt to Mars conditions. In tests some arctic lichen were able to metabolize and even grow somewhat. But metabolic growth would be way too small to be useful.

This may be what guckyfan was referring to: http://www.planetary.org/blogs/guest-blogs/20120515-earth-life-survive-mars.html

4 years ago and I'm only just reading it. Amazing.
Jeff Bezos has billions to spend on rockets and can go at whatever pace he likes! Wow! What pace is he going at? The slowest possible.

Offline sanman

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Re: Engineering Mars-Adapted Extremophiles
« Reply #20 on: 04/23/2017 07:32 AM »
Interesting traits have been found in naked mole-rats, which enable them to easily survive in low-oxygen situations, and even upto 18 minutes with no oxygen at all:

http://www.sunjournal.com/news/bplus/2017/04/23/naked-mole-rats-without-oxygen-live-plants/2115862

http://www.genengnews.com/gen-news-highlights/naked-mole-rats-use-glucose-fructose-switch-to-survive-suffocating-conditions/81254235

Now that might be a useful trait for a creature to have on Mars. It's at least very interesting that Nature has evolved such a backup pathway in animals.

« Last Edit: 04/23/2017 08:23 PM by sanman »

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