If we want to colonize Mars, this bacterium could help out big time.
For humans to truly colonize Mars, we need to overcome a number of problems, the least of which is getting there. Once on Mars, the settlers will have to take care of themselves and produce food, water, medicine, and materials, since delivering them from Earth would be way too expensive. To thrive on Mars, settlers must develop a system that would allow them to produce large quantities of food, and as it turns out, a subspecies of cyanobacteria might be there to help.
Scientists have identified a subspecies of cyanobacteria that appears to be most suitable for use in a biological life support system for humans on Mars.
ZARM scientist Dr. Cyprien Verseux led an international team of researchers that found cyanobacteria subspecies that could be used in a biological life support system that would enable humans to survive on Mars.
Initially, the inhospitable environment of the Red Planet appears to have few resources for sustaining life or producing food.
A high carbon (95%), nitrogen-rich atmosphere, and red regolith soil, rich in iron and other metals and minerals, are ideal conditions for such bioprocesses – and cyanobacteria are the key.
In fact, scientists hail cyanobacteria as masters of survival on Mars.
In this phylum, some microorganisms are capable of photosynthesis. They can utilize Martian dust and the atmosphere to produce oxygen and biomass, which can be used for food production and various other purposes.
Dr. Cyprien Verseux, head of the Laboratory of Applied Space Microbiology at the Center for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity of the University of Bremen, explains that for humans to be able to survive on Mars, we will need to provide them with a large amount of food, oxygen, water, and sometimes medication. These resources cannot be obtained from Earth, as the costs and risks would be too high.
What makes the model bacterium so special?
Developing a life support system from cyanobacteria is not new to space exploration research. However, developing a shared model bacterium has been challenging because of the thousands of species in the Cyanobacteria phylum.
A cyanobacterium strain, Anabaena sp. Cyprien Verseux and colleagues have identified PCC 7938 as a promising candidate for a Mars life support system. According to them, it could be the model that the field needs.
“We first preselected a few cyanobacterium strains based on knowledge already available. We then looked for insights into these strains’ genomic DNA and finally compared them through a series of experiments in the laboratory. In short, we had two sets of criteria: The first pertained to the cyanobacteria’s abilities to feed on resources available on Mars. The second dealt with their abilities to support the growth of other organisms, such as edible plants and other bacteria, which would be highly valuable but could not use Martian resources as directly”.
To achieve the latter point, the team used only extracts from cyanobacterium biomass as a feedstock to cultivate duckweed as a higher, nutrient-rich plant.
“This plant grows extremely fast and is completely edible,” said Tiago Ramalho, also a scientist at ZARM and the first author of the study.
This sole fact makes the planet a prime candidate for agriculture on the red planet.
The science team hopes that these findings will stimulate research on Mars’ so-called in situ resource utilization processes, meaning that native Mars resources will be utilized.
“Our work, and that of colleagues in this field, has brought promising proofs-of-concept. It seems that cyanobacteria could indeed be fed from Martian resources and then be used to feed other bioprocesses of interest. But knowing that this system could work at all is not enough. We need to improve it, assess whether it could be efficient enough to be worth integrating into missions to Mars and, if so, develop practical solutions – including hardware and processes.”
Aside from understanding the biological mechanisms that make Anabaena sp. PCC 7938 is so valuable; they also aim to improve the quality of the strain.
“Things are just starting, and the amount of research work left could be daunting. Fortunately, it is taking the direction of a highly collaborative effort: The number of teams contributing to cyanobacterium-based life-support systems is increasing rapidly”, said Verseux.
Results from the study have been published in “Applied and Environmental Microbiology.”
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