Microbes for Mars

There’s a fascinating new BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time” discussion on extremophiles available now, as a one hour .mp3. In the programme’s ‘extra time’ section (.mp3 only) it was revealed that humanity owes our modern gene sequencing and splicing technology to the discovery of extremophiles, since these now play a key and irreplacable role in genetic technology. Also in the wider area of industrial biotechnology.

So humanity owes a great debt to geologists John Corliss and John Edmond, who found the first undersea extremophiles. In 1977 they piloted the submersible DSV Alvin 1.6 miles down into the mid-Atlantic to explore the Galapagos Rift, where they were the first to encountered a patch of mysterious hot manganese springs. They then adventurously piloted their craft up a strange hot ridge, not knowing what was in the darkness on the other side. Neither man expected there to be life down there, but they looked out of the heavy windows… and discovered a vast oasis of extremophiles. There were tubeworms, white crabs, purple octopus, pink fish and giant clams, and the uniquely weird micro-organisms they lived off.

It gets better, because nearly 40 years later humanity has the technology to build new extremophiles. DARPA’s new Biological Technologies Office is reportedly “Engineering the Organisms That Will Terraform Mars” and is first working out the high-speed workflows that will be needed to…

“engineer new types of extremophile organisms capable of surviving in a scarred wasteland. … And that’s where terraforming Mars comes in. With enough practice turning Earth’s damaged landscapes back into places hospitable for life, Jackson thinks we’ll have what it takes to eventually try to colonize the solar system.”