Cyanos on Mars: Bringing Life to the Red Planet

Mars cyano chamber
Cyanobacteria could be grown own Mars in chambers like the artistic rendition shown here. 

As you look up at the night sky this month, out amongst the abyss of stars, you are likely to notice that one “star” in particular is getting brighter. Mars is approaching closer to Earth than it has in the last 15 years, making its brightness almost double in magnitude. This planet may be more than 42 million miles away, but researchers on Earth are already looking at ways to make life on the Red Planet feasible.

Dr. Bryan Bishé, a postdoctoral fellow in the Golden lab at UCSD, has always been fascinated by Mars. He grew up reading the Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson and has spent a lot of time imagining what life would be like as a settler on this distant planet. Though he did his PhD work in virology, Bryan has more recently shifted focus to bioengineering. Now he is working on a way to make sure that future settlers of Mars will have the tools they need to survive. “The challenge of Mars is an exercise in sustainability and resource management,” he explains. To address this problem, Bryan is engineering organisms that can grow comfortably in the alien atmosphere to produce nutrients—like food and fertilizer. The organisms he is using are called cyanobacteria.

Cyanobacteria, commonly called cyanos, are some of the oldest organisms known to man. Way back when the Earth’s atmosphere was mainly carbon dioxide, ancient cyanos developed the ability to perform photosynthesis, and thus began changing the air composition to include more oxygen. This became the foundation for other forms of life on Earth. In fact, the organelles that modern plants and algae use to convert sunlight into food, called chloroplasts, likely comes from one ancient organism eating and coopting the photosynthetic machinery of a cyano.

Cyanos
Fluorescent microscopy images of cyanobacteria.

There are many different strains of cyanos that grow in some of the most extreme environments of the world. Several of these strains have been well studied in laboratory settings. In particular, there is a library of gene mutations available for a cyano strain originally isolated from a stream in Texas. This collection of mutants allows researchers to better understand the importance of each individual gene in the organism. This is the strain that Bryan hopes to engineer for life on Mars. But how does he plan to mimic the Martian environment for his studies?

As it happens, a NASA contractor called TechShot built a Mars simulator in Indiana. In their simulation chamber, which mimics the sunlight, atmosphere, and temperature of Mars, researchers were able to show that cyanos can grow under Martian conditions, albeit slowly. Bryan wants to follow up these studies by using the cyano mutant library to see which strains will grow the best in Martian conditions. For example, because the Martian atmosphere is 95% carbon dioxide, it is likely that strains with mutations in membrane proteins that transport carbon dioxide and oxygen into the cell could grow better. Another possibility would be getting cyanos to convert atmospheric nitrogen into molecules called nitrates that are important for fertilizers. Finally, it would be great if we could engineer cyanos that were nutritious enough to eat. All of this would lead to more sustainable resource management on Mars.

But this research could also lead to more sustainable practices here on Earth, too. Our own planet is quickly running out of key resources that humans need to survive. Engineering cyanobacteria to help with water remediation and nutrient production could be just as useful for us as it would be for Martian settlers. “Developing those technologies is going to be crucial to how we do those things on Earth,” says Bryan. The ultimate plan would be for this research to kill two birds with one stone.

There is one problem with this plan—funding. Any scientist will tell you that in order to do good research, you have to have access to the right resources. That costs money. A lot of the money that drives research, especially at academic institutions like UCSD, comes from federal agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Health. These organizations use tax-payer money to fund scientific projects with the ultimate goal of helping society. But sometimes these funding agencies can be short-sighted. Projects like Bryan’s don’t always get the attention they deserve because there simply isn’t enough money to fund all of the research being proposed.

This is why Bryan founded pubfund.science. This is a non-profit organization that allows members of the public to interact directly with real science being done in the lab. For Bryan, starting this non-profit is not just about getting the resources for his research, it is also about public engagement. “If scientists don’t start communicating their work in more accessible ways, we are going to see further erosion of faith and credibility in science from a general audience.” Lack of public trust in science is not only bad for research, but it ultimately hurts the progress of society.

Science has already done a great deal to move our society into the modern era. The fact that we are exploring options to inhabit another planet are a testament to that. But the role that scientists play in interacting with the public is changing. For a long time now, the government and private institutions have been the gate keepers for science funding. Crowd funding organizations like pubfund.science are just one way that scientists are trying to combat this issue so that the public has more of a stake in the kind of research being funded. By fostering a stronger partnership between the general public and active scientists, we can help modernize science for the next generation—and maybe even go to Mars.

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