The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been heavily investing in synthetic biology and genetic engineering. Their latest goal is to use genetically engineered organisms to terraform Mars, creating an Earth-like environment that will support living on the planet.

As it is now, Mars is uninhabitable, but by creating organisms and introducing them to the Red Planet, DARPA is keen on warming it up and thickening the environment. The genetically engineered organisms are designed to grow under Martian conditions, photosynthesizing plants, algae and bacteria to make Mars less barren.

"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," said Alicia Jackson, deputy director for the new Biological Technologies Office at DARPA.

Last year, Jackson's team started researching how organisms could be genetically engineered more easily. There are apparently between 30 million and 30 billion organisms on Earth and two are being used right now in engineering biology.

Jackson's goal is to use any organism containing the wanted features for a certain application. To do so, she and her team are working on quickly mapping genomes so information can be accessed and engineering can begin promptly.

DARPA has what is known as DTA GView. To Jackson, the software is like Google Maps for genomes. A lot of information has already been collected about genomes and she wants to tap into all of that knowledge and not just let it sit there without being utilized.

Before these genetically engineered organisms can make it to Mars, however, they will first be tested out here on Earth as a means of repairing environmental damage. According to Jackson, extremophile organisms can be re-engineered for that purpose, taking advantage of their inate ability to survive in scarred wastelands to rehabilitate areas after man-made or natural disasters strike.

Once Jackson's team has found a way to restore damaged landscapes on Earth to their former glory, they are confident that they will have what it takes to start preparing Mars for the arrival of a colony. DARPA has not released a timeline for this goal, but the project holds a lot of promise despite the technology still being in its early stages.

Photo: Hubble Heritage | Flickr

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