One of the pieces I put up yesterday was on a paper by two scientists in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, discussing the possibility of terraforming Mars using genetically engineered microbes. Florence, one of the commenters on this blog, used to be a microbiologist, and was extremely interested in the exploration of Mars and the prospect for finding life there. She commented that there are already anaerobic microbes that can exist in comparable conditions on Earth. She felt that the experiments carried designed to detect life on the Red Planet were very inadequate. She wrote
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! Thank you for reminding me of the whole area of microbial life here and across the solar system! Happy New Year, too!
The paper discussing the use of GEMOs to terraform Mars did mention that some existing microorganisms had been considered, such as a variety of cyanobacteria.
Looking through the index of papers published in the Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the Mars Society: August 13-16, 1998, edited by Robert and Linda Zubrin, I did find one paper by James M. Graham and Linda E. Graham on terrestrial microbes on Mars. This was ‘Physiological Ecology of Terrestrial Microbes on a Terraformed Mars’, published in the third volume of papers. Unfortunately, I don’t have that volume, and so I really don’t know anything about the paper or its conclusions, just that it exists.
As for the inadequacy of the instruments aboard the Viking probe to detect life on the Red Planet, Dr. Heather Couper and the late Colin Pillinger also believed that they were too limited to disprove the existence of life in that part of the cosmos. Heather Couper is an astronomer, writer and broadcaster, who’s written a series of books on astronomy. A few years ago I heard her talk about life on Mars at the Cheltenham Festival of Science. Before she began speaking, she asked her audience how many of them believed there was life there. Only a few people put their hands up. She asked the same question again at the end of her talk, after she had explained the problems with Viking’s experiments, and the evidence for life. That time the majority of people put their hands up.
Dr. Colin Pillinger, who was a scientist with the Open University, also made a very strong case for life on Mars, life he hoped to find with the Beagle Probe. One of the ways life could be detected was through its waste gases, like methane. The Beagle Probe carried just such a detector, and Dr. Pillinger said, ‘So if a bacterium farts on Mars, we’ll find it.’ He was another speaker at the Cheltenham Festival of Science, and was well worth hearing. Sadly, the Beagle Probe was a disastrous failure. Rather than soft-landing, it crashed on to the Mars surface, and was destroyed.
Despite this, I still have immense respect for the man. He and his team seemed to be fighting a lone battle to send a British probe to explore the issue, and I am deeply impressed by the way he and his fellow scientists were able to mobilise public support, including celebrities like the artist, Damian Hurst. I got the impression that his team were rushed, and it may well have been this that caused the mission’s failure. But I don’t fault the man for trying, and I think he did a grand job in taking on British officialdom and winning a place for the probe aboard the Ariane craft, when the British authorities didn’t appear to be at all interested, at least, at the beginning.
It’s sad that he failed, but he was genuinely inspirational in pushing for the project. I hope that it will not be too long before someone else sends another, better probe to Mars. And I think we need more scientists, and science educators like him, who can pass on their great enthusiasm for their subject.
Tags: 'Proceedings of the Founding Convention of the Mars Society', Beagle Probe, BIS Journal, Cheltenham Festival of Science, Colin Pillinger, Damian Hurst, Florence, genetic engineering, Heather Couper, James M. Graham, Linda E. Graham, Linda Zubrin, Mars, Microbes, Open University, Robert Zubrin, Rockets, Terraforming