British Interplanetary Society Paper on Terraforming Mars with Microorganisms

Yesterday I put up a couple of articles on terraforming the various planets of the Solar system, including Mercury, Venus and Earth’s Moon, as well as Mars. There have been a couple of really interesting comments posted to them. Florence, one of the great people, who read this blog, stated that she was a microbiologist. She was very much looking forward to working on microorganisms for Mars, but unfortunately that, and much of the rest of the space programme, vanished.

As well as Carl Sagan’s suggestion in the 1960s that blue-green algae could be used to create a breathable atmosphere and Earthlike environment on Mars, a number of scientists have also suggested using microorganisms to terraform the Red Planet. Twenty years ago the American Astronautical Society published a series of papers, edited by Robert M. Zubrin, about the colonisation of Mars, From Imagination to Reality: Mars Exploration Studies of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society: Part II: Base Building, Colonization and Terraformation (San Diego: Univelt 1997). This included a paper, ‘Genetic Modification and Selection of Microorganisms for Growth on Mars’ by Julian A. Hiscox and David J. Thomas.


The abstract for this paper reads

Genetic engineering has often been suggested as a mechanism for improving the survival prospects of terrestrial microorganisms when seeded on Mars. The survival characteristics that these pioneer microorganisms could be endowed with and a variety of mechanisms by which this can be achieved are discussed, together with an overview of some of the potential hurdles that must be overcome. Also, a number of biologically useful properties for these microorganisms are presented that could facilitate the initial human colonisation and ultimately the planetary engineering of Mars.

After an Introduction, in which they state that the terraformation of Mars could be a two-stage process, with the construction of an Earthlike environment by microorganisms being the first, they then proceed to the following sections:

2. Selection of Bacteria for Mars The Search for a Marsbug, which discusses the suitability of terrestrial microbes for the process, such as the cyanobacterium Chroococcidiops and the extremophiles, which occupy of extreme environments here on Earth;

3. Genetic Engineering – A simple Matter of Cut and Paste;

4. Genetic Modification and Selection;

5. Gene Expression, with subsections on

1) Survival Properties – Tolerance to Peroxides; Osmotic Adaptation; UV Resistance; Tolerance to High Intracellular Acid Concentrations; Endospore Formation;

2) General Properties, with further subsections on photosynthesis, nitrogen fixation, and denitrification;

6. Uses of GEMOS and Some Speculations,

and then finally the conclusion and acknowledgments.

The conclusion reads

The introduction of microorganisms on Mars will greatly facilitate colonisation, both during initial attempts and in establishment of a stable ecosystem, either in enclosed habitats or at the end of ecopoiesis or terraformation. During the initial stages of ecopoiesis climatic conditions on Mars will be limiting for most terrestrial microorganism. By using genetic modification and directed selection under simulated Martian conditions, it may be possible to greatly enhance the survival capability of microorganisms during the alteration of the Martian climate to more clement conditions. Such microorganisms could be used to facilitate any planetary engineering effort. For example, they could be used to release Co2 and N2 from putative carbonate and nitrate deposits.

The genetic alteration of microorganisms will not be so much of a problem of introducing foreign genes into the organism but more a matter of understanding and controlling the regulatory pathways for the expression of such genes. However, such understandings will provide valuable insights into genetics, not only for increasing the productivity of microorganisms on Mars but possibly for Earth.

I’ve got very strong reservations about genetic engineering and modification, but here there is a strong case if it can be used to bring life to a sterile world. Assuming, that is, that Mars does not already possess life. In a way, the article’s ironic. Over a century ago, H.G. Wells had a germ, the common cold, destroy the invading Martians in his book, The War of the Worlds. Now terrestrial scientists are discussing using such organisms as ways to creating a living environment on the Red Planet.


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2 Responses to “British Interplanetary Society Paper on Terraforming Mars with Microorganisms”

  1. Florence Says:

    There appears little need to create GMOs for terraforming. We already have the real deal here on earth. Back 3.6 billion years ago, when first life is thought to have arrived/ developed / etc there wasn’t an oxygen based atmosphere. It was anoxic, and the first organisms (the archeao bacteria) were very sensitive to oxygen, and there are still many that find oxygen toxic. These are still found in many places including the human gut! Some microorganisms developed oxygen tolerance and that allowed them to use new food sources, and they began adding oxygen to the atmosphere. These organisms then used this evolutionary advantage to evolve and diversify. When I studied anaerobic bacteria the main problems were sensitivity to oxygen – very difficult to remove from all materials prepared in the standard lab – and the slow growth rate (making the rapid generation of results for research funding cycles pretty difficult).

    Then there are the organisms that can grow in both aerobic and anaerobic environments. These are the ones that would be useful in terraforming if the aim was to develop a breathable atmosphere for humans and other animals. These live on very basic nutrients of sulphur and iron containing minerals, plus water. I think the “red” planet would be a great place to find these organisms, and vee may not even need to send ours over, but to stimulate the environmental conditions that would allow the planet to terraform itself. I recall the so-called search for life on the early Mars probes left me speechless – they were just totally inappropriate. But that’s can other story! Thankyou for reminding me of the whole area of microbial life here and across the solar system! Happy New Year, too!

    • beastrabban Says:

      Thanks for the New Year’s greeting and the information – this is fascinating stuff! Regarding the attempts to find life on Mars with the Viking lander, which got there in 1976, Heather Couper, the astronomer and science writer and broadcaster, said something very much like that several years ago at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. I’m afraid I can’t remember the details, but she made the point that the experiments on board the lander were very limited in what they actually looked for, and that by looking for other indicators it was very possible indeed that the probes had actually found life. She certainly believed so, and by the end of the her talk had convinced most of the people in the room.

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