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Synthetic biology is key to living on Mars

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Synthetic biology could be one of the secrets to living on Mars, according to new research from the University of California Berkeley.

Genetically engineered microbes could be designed to produce water, oxygen, food, and even rocket fuel, from raw materials found on the Moon or Mars. The ability to create these vital supplies on the surface of other worlds will eliminate the need to carry the supplies, reducing launch costs and risks to astronauts.

Aerospace organizations, both private and public, are currently envisioning trips to other planets, carrying vast quantities of cargo. One rule-of-thumb for human space missions is that for every pound of cargo to be sent into space, another 99 pounds of equipment, fuel, and supplies must be lifted off the ground. Excess weight not only costs additional money, but also raises risks more astronauts, as larger engines are needed to carry the spacecraft beyond the atmosphere of the Earth.

"Our analysis indicates that (synthetic biology) has a good chance of being a disruptive space technology by providing substantial savings over current techniques. One goal of our paper is to advocate for an expanded role for synthetic biology in space science, with a view toward future mission deployment," Amor Menezes, a postdoctoral student in the Institute for Quantitative Biosciences at UC Berkeley, said.

Biological production of engineered organisms could reduce the mass of required equipment and supplies between 26 and 85 percent, according to researchers.

Methanobacterium thermoautotrophicum, an ancient bacteria, could produce methane and oxygen needed for fuel. Material and equipment needed to carry out this task over a 916-day mission would weigh 56 percent less than the fuel itself and required storage and delivery systems. The technology would also reduce the weight of food by 38 percent. A 3-D printer, used to manufacture a Martian shelter for six space travelers, along with raw materials, would weigh 85 percent less than building the structure on Earth. Mission costs would also be reduced if fewer supply ships were required for the journey to Mars, which can last up to 210 days.

"In the future, the biological technologies will have to be deemed 'safe' for the astronauts and the extraterrestrial destination, with suitable containment efforts in place. You may even see some biological technologies on the first long-duration manned voyage," Menezes stated in a University press release.

Synthetic biology, described as "genetic engineering on steroids," has been used to develop the most effective malaria drug in the world, along with a host of environmentally-friendly fuels. Varieties of the synthetic lifeforms could be developed that would refresh medicines that had expired or been damaged from radiation.

Investigation of the role that could be played by synthetic lifeforms in the colonization of Mars and other planets was published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

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