DARPA Wants to Create Synthetic Organisms to Terraform and Change the Atmosphere of Mars

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) believes that it’s on the way to creating synthetic organisms capable of terraforming Mars into a planet that looks more like Earth, Motherboard reports.

Speaking at a recent biotech conference hosted by DARPA, Alicia Jackson, deputy director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO) said:

For the first time, we have the technological toolkit to transform not just hostile places here on Earth, but to go into space not just to visit, but to stay.

Jackson, who joined DARPA in 2010, is a researcher specialized in the integration of engineering with biology to assemble cells and inorganic materials and create self-healing, evolvable materials. The BTO is a DARPA division that aims to merge biology, engineering, and computer science to harness the power of natural systems for national security. The BTO aims to develop new products and systems that go beyond what is possible with conventional chemistry and manufacturing technologies. BTO’s Living Foundries program does research on how to leverage the unparalleled synthetic and functional capabilities of biology to create a revolutionary, biologically-based manufacturing platform.

Engineering Extremophile Organisms to Change the Atmosphere of Mars

Synthetic BiologyTerraforming Mars means hacking the red planet to make it suitable for the establishment of a terrestrial ecosystem and human life, and is a necessary prerequisite for the plans to colonize Mars that have been proposed by visionary thinkers like Robert Zubrin and entrepreneurs like Elon Musk. The terraforming process would need to warm-up and thicken the atmosphere of Mars, which can be accomplished with bacteria, algae and photosynthesizing plants specialized to thrive in the Mars environment.

Tweaking existing life forms to engineer new ones is the goal of advanced biotech and synthetic biology, but so far only two organisms – e. coli and yeast – have been used in synthetic biology research.

Jackson is more ambitious. “There are anywhere from 30 million to 30 billion organisms on this Earth. We use two right now for engineering biology,” she said.

I want to use any organism that has properties I want – I want to quickly map it and quickly engineer it. If you look at genome annotation software today, it’s not built to quickly find engineerable systems. It’s built to look for an esoteric and interesting thing I can publish an academic paper on.

mars astronaut

Jackson and her team have been working on a software tool called GTA GView, or the “Google maps of genomes,” which will allow geneticists to quickly search for the type of genetic material they need for an engineering project. As a result, they will be able to engineer organisms for much more specific purposes.

Future versions of the tool could could search for specific genes in organisms and know which ones to splice together for a specific purpose within a day. That would allow researchers to create extremophiles that could survive conditions in the extreme environment of Mars, and the photosynthesis from those organisms could make the planet habitable for humans.

It may seem odd that DARPA, an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for the development of emerging technologies for use by the military, does research aimed at the terraforming and colonization of Mars, but of course the same cutting edge research in synthetic biology could lead to increased process versatility and resiliency in a combat environment with extreme conditions.

Images from NASA and Shutterstock.

Giulio Prisco is a freelance writer specialized in science, technology, business and future studies.