An experiment by German scientists has shown that blue-green algae can survive in the conditions of the Red Planet. This fact allows us to hope for the creation of life support for humans on Mars based on cyanobacteria.
One of the problems of the future colonization of Mars is the provision of food and oxygen to the inhabitants, which must be produced locally. For this purpose, scientists are conducting experiments with different types of plant material.
Among them – cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae – one of the most ancient and unpretentious organisms on Earth. They are capable of photosynthesis with the release of oxygen (such bacteria, according to scientists, at one time helped fill the earth’s atmosphere with oxygen).
Cyanobacteria can survive on Mars
The efficiency of blue-green algae on Mars will largely depend on their behavior in an artificial atmosphere. And the researchers believe that in this case, a trade-off is necessary between the conditions that would be desirable from an engineering and logistic point of view (proximity to the conditions of the surface of the Red Planet) and those that optimize the productivity of cyanobacteria.
To meet this compromise, scientists from the Center for Applied Space Technologies and Microgravity at the University of Bremen (Germany) have developed a low-pressure photobioreactor – Atmos. It provides strictly regulated and necessary atmospheric conditions (a mixture of gases that are observed in the atmosphere of Mars, and a lower pressure – one-tenth of the pressure on Earth at sea level) in nine cyanobacteria growing chambers. Also for this purpose, scientists took an analog of the Martian regolith.
The result was promising: cyanobacteria placed in such conditions retained the ability to grow in water containing only an analog of Martian dust. In addition, these algae could be used to feed other microorganisms. This is encouraging, since, on Earth, cyanobacteria are not always compatible with other life, as they are capable of releasing strong toxins.
The atmosphere of Mars is composed primarily of carbon dioxide and very little nitrogen. Blue-green algae appear to be capable of not only releasing oxygen under similar conditions but also producing organic compounds and nutrients to “fertilize” other living organisms. Scientists also checked this fact in their experiment: they grew E.coli on a dried extract of cyanobacteria grown in the artificial atmosphere of Mars.
The researchers emphasize that their results are an intermediate result, and in the future, they intend to simulate the artificial conditions of the Red Planet in different ways in order to study the behavior of cyanobacteria in more detail.
Making Mars Habitable Again
In September 2020, a network of salt lakes was discovered at the south pole of the Red Planet. They have formed on Mars over 3.5 billion years ago. The discovery was made using the Mars Express apparatus. The research station has been collecting data about the planet for 17 years. According to researchers, in the first epochs of existence, the planet was similar to the Earth.
With the arrival of the first humans to Mars approaching, scientists are conducting more and more experiments to make the red planet as friendly as possible for human settlement. The pressing question after this recent research is whether we can create such habitable conditions again on Mars with the help of cyanobacteria.
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• O’Neill, M. (2021, February 16). Mars bioreactor Atmos: BIOTECH fit for the red planet.
• Starr, M. (n.d.). Blue-Green algae could help keep humans alive on Mars, experiment suggests.
• Verseux, C., Heinicke, C., Ramalho, T., Determann, J., Duckhorn, M., Smagin, M., & Avila, M. (2021, January 07). A low-pressure, n2/co2 atmosphere is suitable for cyanobacterium-based life-support systems on mars.