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Thread: Protecting Terraforming Bacteria While They "Work"

  1. #1
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    Protecting Terraforming Bacteria While They "Work"

    Hi All,

    Firstly, my apologies if this is in the wrong forum.

    Secondly, my apologies if this has been answered many times already and I failed to find it. When I searched the forums a lot of hits came up for "bacteria", and searching all of those threads became overwhelming task. If another member recalls a previous discussion and could point me in the correct direction, I would greatly appreciate it.

    Background:

    I was recently reviewing this thread:
    http://www.bautforum.com/space-exploration/101484-mars-suppression.html
    and the topic of terraforming bacteria was discussed. In my quick perusal, many posts were made about the use of bacteria for terraforming, yet no one discussed how this concept was actually to be accomplished.

    I should point out that I am a biochemist, and as such, I have some background on how microorganisms behave. And yes I am aware that some Pseudomonas strains have shown resistance to particle radiation, and are capable of surviving (not to be confused with proliferating) in active pool-type reactors. And yes, I am aware that other species have fairly high resistance to UV radiation, etc, etc.

    However, what is bothering me is a perceived misconception from what I have read from other threads with regards to the capabilities of the super strains that are expected to complete their terraforming tasks - releasing water, providing an initial atmosphere, and building a base biosphere, etc. In the sense of this terraforming, I am contemplating Mars or the Earth's moon, as I really don't know much about the physical characteristics of the different planets, and these two bodies seem to be the potential target of most of the discussion around terraforming.

    It seems to me that the task would have to be performed in phases. As the environmental conditions evolve on the target, the capabilities of the organisms required would need to be adjusted, likely by introducing a newer species to continue (or inactivate) a task of a previous organism, or initiating a secondary objective. Initially the species would be required to be tolerant to particle bombardment, UV exposure, wildly fluctuating temperatures, dehydration, amongst the harshest conditions. No single species is going to be able to "Do It All". The issue of preventing over-proliferation of a terraforming species must be addressed. Post-seeding mutation may also have to be addressed - especially in the case of inactivating a prior species.

    Secondly, although it may seem elementary to some genetic engineering, in it's current state, is not simply a case of inserting the genes with the desired characteristic, and selecting for the expression. Gene insertion (and activation) is usually performed with species that are receptive to the anticipated change, with the "host" maintaining the characteristic that preselected if for engineering (e.g. in the case of initial terraforming, protective qualities). Gene insertion or substitution, can give expected and/or undesirable results, which may not be initially evident.

    Additionally, while it is well established that some species can survive a vacuum and other environmental parameters that would be encountered in a terraforming scenario, the posts I have read have failed to acknowledge that there is a substantial difference between organism survival and organism proliferation. The topic of endospores and eukaryotic spore formers has popped up here, but nowhere did I see it mentioned that spore formation is a defensive mechanism for the organism. Just because an organism is capable of protecting itself, in no uncertain terms should it imply that it is capable of reactivation/replication/environmental interaction while in it's defensive state. Currently, this is simply not the case. Reactivation, occurs in favorable conditions only. While there are species currently living on Earth which can survive, and in some cases flourish, in environments that far exceed the normal range of parameters needed for human survival, I know of none that would be candidates for engineering for flourishing in these harshest of environments.

    Now to my question(s).

    Is there any knowledge here of reputable work being done, or potential strategies, to address these issues? Is it at this time, a case of we will wait until future technology can better accommodate a solution?

    Thanks in advance for any responses.
    Last edited by 99gecko; 2010-Mar-04 at 07:24 PM.

  2. #2
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    Introducing bacteria in stages makes a lot of of sense, and I can see terraforming as a beautiful project. It could be a very hope inducing project for humanity to see a new planet being formed in stages. Of course, we should have a master plan before we charge in.

    The only studies I know of are not geared towards genetic engineering but towards locating and studying 'Extremophiles'. Currently they are sought out as possible sources of new pharmaceuticals. These are the lifeforms that manage to exist on earth under conditions that seem impossible -- salty lakes, acid lakes, caves, hydrothermal vents, hot springs, icebergs and glaciers etc. I watched a documentary video about them, and that is all that I know of them. If you search for Extremophiles you'll find something on the internet about them.

    You said Mars is too harsh for most organisms, however what about deep underground? Might it not be possible for them to proliferate deep down, away from the radiation? That might remove two of the extreme conditions -- low pressure & high radiation. So then what you need are possibly anaerobic, low temperature, darkness loving, gas producing bacteria.

  3. #3
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    Well, almost certainly there would be genetic engineering involved.

    The conditions you listed may or may not be representative of underground conditons on Mars - I just don't know. To be honest, I only have a spawning interest in astronomy and bioastronomy, which is one of the reasons I have joined this forum. That being said, I would speculate that the physical conditions (pressure, porosity) underground on Mars might be somewhat similar to Earth's, although definitely colder with less gravity. The organisms would need to be selected/engineered for optimal growth in those conditions. The chemical composition and conditions - salt conc., pH etc. - I wouldn't want to speculate upon, but it is important as any microorganisms seeded would be metabolizing it.

    Depending on how deep you go, I doubt the daily/seasonal temperature fluctuations of the surface would be sustained and therefore the necessary thermometric resistance of the species required should be lessened. However the concern I would have about seeding too far underground (assuming you could do it) is…. what would it accomplish? If the initial intention is to generate a heat retaining atmosphere and melt ice, shouldn't it be very close to the surface? To deep and it might take millennia before you could notice a change.

    Extremophiles as you mentioned, or more likely polyextremophiles (tolerant of multiple environmental parameters) might be a key component. I really didn't want to get into a discussion of them, since what I have read suggests for the most part they are not of a ubiquitous nature - at least here on Earth - however that scenario might change in a different set of conditions. Deinococcus radiodurans is a commonly discussed microorganism, but it is an obligate aerobe (requires oxygen), exactly what you don't want when trying to create an oxygen enriched atmosphere. Archaea might be better candidates.

    Regardless, it is a moot point unless you can sustain the atmosphere, which from what I've read here and elsewhere would be the real challenge.

    I find this to be a very interesting thought experiment.

    cheers.

  4. #4
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    Is there any knowledge here of reputable work being done, or potential strategies, to address these issues? Is it at this time, a case of we will wait until future technology can better accommodate a solution?
    A potential strategy would be to select from among Earth's most durable species of microbes for the extreme conditions proven to exist on the site of choice and duplicate the conditions as closlely as feasible in an Earth lab or one in near Earth orbit. Modifications would be made to the extent that lab results indicate and the lab conditions replicated on the site of choice. Our current state of technical competence and energy acquisition makes this a piece of cake including the resolution of the problems you cite.

  5. #5
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    Terraforming using biological organisms can be regarded as using self-replicating systems(SRS) to acheive atmospheric modification. Since the only SRS we know of at the moment are biological agents, it seems quite possible that the SRS that will be available for use in this context will either be biological agents, or non-biological agents based (closely or otherwise) on biological systems.

    I would start by reading Robert Freitas' paper on the use of SRS in terraforming; it is not quite what you are looking for, but it gives an idea of some of the problems.
    http://www.rfreitas.com/Astro/TerraformSRS1983.htm

  6. #6
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    I was reading an article in the Edmonton Journal today that says that meteor impact sites may have been important in the proliferation of life, way back, on earth. I believe they thought that the added warmth of these impact sites was significant. I am not sure about the time scale. Perhaps, if we bombarded Mars' surface with lots of rocks and ice we could create a basic atmosphere and some warm "incubators."

  7. #7
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    Quote Originally Posted by 99gecko View Post
    Is there any knowledge here of reputable work being done, or potential strategies, to address these issues? Is it at this time, a case of we will wait until future technology can better accommodate a solution?
    I'm not sure if these are what you're looking for, but there are three short articles in Gravitational and Space Biology that you might like.
    "Planetary Biology and Terraforming", "Extremophiles for Ecopoiesis..." and "Planetary Ecosynthesis...". You'll find them at the bottom of the Symposia section of the page. See if these help.

  8. #8
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    Thanks for that link PraedSt.
    Lots of reading there to consume some free time. Now, if I only had some free time!

    Thanks again.

    cheers.

  9. #9
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    One aspect about gecko's OP I'd question. The inquiry assumes we seek to control the end result, presumably to the effect of achieving an Earth like atmosphere on Mars, moon or where ever else terraforming might be used. This is terraforming for Man, not life in general. The ability to manage and control that type of terraforming will be extremely difficult, very hands on and long term in its management.

    Another model is not to attempt to control the end result. Let them loose, after the initial research to make them survivable and proliferating, as suggested, then let them come up with their own solutions for further evolution. Nature is far more practiced, clever and imaginative than we are at finding solutions for its own survival. Our efforts to control the end result to suit ourselves will inevitably result in a hindrance to natural processes, which left to their own devices, once given the start, have a far better chance of succeeding in the longer run.

    You are never going to create another Earth. There are too many insurmountable factors for other planets and moons to overcome, but that does not mean a unique environment cannot be created by life itself which is perfectly adapted to all the factors which are different to Earth's. It may not be suitable for Man, or ideal, but if Life is the issue, then we shouldn't be preoccupied with our species. You never know, it might be come up with much the same result in the long run. I doubt it, but whatever it comes up with will probably be more workable for Man than what presently exists.

    There are so many factors interplaying that you have to give the organism on the ground the benefit of the doubt rather than imposing preconceived notions.

  10. #10
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    I would imagine the subterranean conditions on Mars would not be too harsh for some earthly extremophiles.

  11. #11
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    I wonder how much energy is stored in the materials on Mars? What if we shelter biolife in a mars rover. The rover could slowly take martian material, convert it, extract energy to power itself, and then move on; so it would be a machine with a biological digestive tract.

  12. #12
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    There shouldn't be any more energy than in average rocks--in other words, pretty much none at all. However, you don't need energy in the materials--you can get energy from sunlight.

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