Image: Bioreactors orbiting Mars
Eric Belita / John Cumbers
Orbiting bioreactors around Mars, like the complex shown in this artist's conception, could use resources from the Red Planet to create food or fuel. Some scientists propose bioengineering synthetic organisms to aid in these reactions.
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updated 9/24/2010 12:04:00 PM ET 2010-09-24T16:04:00

When packing for a manned mission to Mars or the moon, the best thing to bring may not be food or fuel, but specially designed organisms that can create those things for you.

Scientists are researching the possibility of engineering synthetic organisms that would use the resources available in the solar system to create the supplies astronauts would need to survive on another planet.

"Personally I'm interested in space settlement," said John Cumbers, a graduate student at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., who is researching synthetic microbes. "I think we have two choices: We can either go into space and be living inside a tin can, or we can be going into space and recreating in space some of the beauty of nature we have here on Earth."

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Cumbers said he wasn't advocating terraforming, or completely restructuring the surface of a planet to mimic Earth, but rather using bioengineered organisms in a planned and contained way to make life easier in an alien environment.

"I think there's a lot that we can do that's productive with biology without having to release organisms in an unplanned fashion," Cumbers told Astrobiology Magazine.

The dangers of 'Frankenlife'
Even with careful planning, this concept could bring risks, as some experts warn against creating "Frankenlife" that could become an invasive species with unintended consequences for humans or the alien environment, including any native life.

However, other scientists advise reining in fears.

"I don't think this would be particularly hazardous," said Chris McKay, a planetary scientist at Ames who is not involved in Cumbers' project. "The sort of organisms that would be good at doing mineral extraction acidophiles, for example -- are not the type of organisms that cause disease."

And, he said, these synthetic organisms would present no more risk of contaminating the search for alien life than would the normal microbes being carried by humans and spacecraft.

"In any case, we will have to learn how to tell the difference between contamination from Earth and alien life," McKay said.

Making life easier
To design an organism for use on another planet, researchers want to mix and match desired qualities from multiple species. For example, they might start with a species that can do something useful, such as processing materials into biofuels or food. But this species might not be fit for a harsh environment such as on the surface of Mars, where there is no atmosphere to block harmful ultraviolet radiation, and where temperatures can reach frigid depths.

To fix that problem, researchers might want to give that organism genes from extremophile life species on Earth that are adapted to extreme environments and are well-suited to tolerate cold and resist UV radiation.

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Scientists have already achieved some successes in this quest. Cumbers described an experiment in which researchers genetically engineered an E. coli bacterium to survive at lower temperatures than it normally does. They accomplished this by transferring into an E. coli cell the genes from a chaperone from a cold-tolerant organism found in sea ice. A chaperone is a protein that helps other proteins to fold correctly.

One goal that could prove useful for space exploration is creating a synthetic version of spirulina, a dietary supplement made from microscopic algae produced by cyanobacteria. Spirulina is a complete protein, meaning it contains all of the essential amino acids humans need in their diet. That makes it an ideal food to bring on a space mission.

But spirulina generally grows in open ponds in the warm waters of Hawaii so adapting it to life on, say, the moon is an engineering challenge.

Packing for space
One reason bioengineered organisms are so appealing for space travel is that they could open up a lot of room in astronauts' suitcases. The more supplies space travelers can produce once they arrive at their destination, the less they have to pack on the spacecraft.

"For manned missions to the moon or Mars we're going to have to take nearly everything with us, at least at the beginning," Cumbers said. "If we have this new technology where we can take the complete genome of an organism and send it into space and can have that single cell replicate from the resources it finds around it rather than resources we've taken with us then we've started to tackle the problem."

Cumbers presented his work with Lynn Rothschild, his adviser at Ames, at the Astrobiology Science Conference in League City, Texas, in April.

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Explainer: Out-of-this-world destinations

  • NASA

    We are headed to Mars ... eventually. But first we need the rocket technology and human spaceflight savvy to get us there safely and efficiently. And the best way to do that is to visit places such as asteroids, our moon, a Martian moon and even no man's lands in space called "Lagrange points," NASA administrator Charles Bolden explained during the unveiling of the agency's revised vision for space exploration.

    The vision shifts focus away from a return to the moon as part of a steppingstone to Mars in favor of what experts call a "flexible path" to space exploration, pushing humans ever deeper into the cosmos.

    Click the "Next" label to check out six other potential destinations astronauts may visit in the years and decades to come en route to Mars.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Lessons to learn on the space station

    NASA

    The cooperation required to build and maintain the International Space Station will be a key to propelling humans on to Mars, according to Louis Friedman, co-founder of The Planetary Society. The society is a space advocacy organization that supports the flexible path to space exploration. In fact, the space station itself could be a training ground for Mars-bound astronauts.

    Astronauts can spend ever longer blocks of time on the station to gain experience in long-duration flights, for example. They could also practice extravehicular activities akin to those expected on a Mars mission, Friedman noted.

  • Lunar orbit, a test of new technology

    NASA

    Lunar orbit, too, is a familiar destination for human spaceflight, but a return to the familiar with new technology would allow astronauts to test the engineering of systems designed to go deeper into space, according to Friedman.

    A return to the moon is still in the cards on the flexible path, but going to lunar orbit first defers the cost of developing the landing and surface systems needed to get in and out of the lunar gravity well, according to experts.

    The famous "Earthrise" image shown here was made in 1968 during Apollo 8, the first human voyage to orbit the moon.

  • Stable no man's lands in space

    NASA / WMAP Science Team

    There are places in space where the gravitational pulls of Earth and the moon, or Earth and the sun, have a balancing effect on a third body in orbit. Those five locations, known as Lagrange points, could offer relatively stable parking spots for astronomical facilities such as space telescopes or satellites. Human spaceflights to these points would allow astronauts to service these instruments.

    In addition, space experts believe a trip to a Lagrange point could serve as a training mission for astronauts headed to points deeper in space, such as an asteroid. Nevertheless, reaching a Lagrange point would be more of a technical achievement than a scientific achievement, according to Friedman. "It is an empty spot in space," he said.

  • Visit an asteroid near you?

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    The first stop astronauts may make in interplanetary space is one of the asteroids that cross near Earth's orbit. Scientists have a keen interest in the space rocks because of the threat that one of them could strike Earth with devastating consequences. An asteroid mission would allow scientists to better understand what makes the rocks tick, and thus how to best divert one that threatens to smack our planet.

    Humans have also never been to an asteroid, which would make such a visit an exciting first, noted Friedman. "Imagine how interesting it will be to see an astronaut step out of a spacecraft and down onto an asteroid and perform scientific experiments," he said. What's more, since asteroids have almost no gravity, an asteroid encounter would be like docking with the space station, which doesn't require a heavy-lift rocket for the return. That makes an asteroid a potentially less expensive destination than the surface of the moon.

  • Back to the moon?

    NASA via Getty Images

    The moon-Mars path of human space exploration originally envisioned the moon as a training ground for a mission to the Red Planet. While the flexible-path strategy broadens the training field, the moon remains a candidate destination, according to NASA.

    Several other nations also have the moon's surface in their sights, including Japan, India and China. Some experts fear the dedicated lunar programs of these nations will eventually leave the United States in the dust as it focuses on an ambiguous flexible path.

    Friedman, of The Planetary Society, said NASA should support the lunar programs of Japan, India and China as part of team building for an international Mars mission, but sees no reason for NASA to focus on the moon. "We've done that already and that was Apollo," he said.

  • Martian moon a final pit stop?

    NASA / JPL-Caltech / UA

    Before astronauts go all the way to Mars, there's reason to make a final stop at one of its moons, Phobos or Deimos. The two moons are less than 20 miles across at their widest, which means landing on them would be less expensive than the Red Planet itself.

    Friedman used to consider a mission to a Martian moon nonsensical - akin to going to the base camp of Mount Everest instead of going to the top of the mountain. "I've now turned myself around on that, because you do go to the base camp and you do actually conduct training activities there before you attempt the summit," he said.

    "By all means go there," he added. "Test out your rendezvous and docking at Mars, conduct your three-year, round-trip mission, maybe tele-operate some rovers of the surface (of Mars). That will all be interesting and then the next mission will finally go down to the surface."

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