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Project Overview

Terraforming of Mars

Terraforming of a planetary body (planet or moon) or planetary ecosynthesis is the hypothetical process of deliberately modifying its atmosphere composition, temperature, topography, or ecology to be similar to those of Earth to make it habitable for Terran organism, including humans. Terraforming is a common concept in science fiction. In fact, Jack Williamson, a science fiction writer, coined the term in 1942. But the first to use the concept was H.G. Wells in his The War of the Worlds (1898), where the martian invaders start a terraforming-reverse process in order to change our planet for their own benefit. Recent work in fiction exploring this concept includes the wonderful Mars Trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson that has filled our dreams about the red planet with astonishing details

Kim Stanley Robinson with his Mars Trilogy has been one of the major inspirators of our work. They are really worth reading books.

In the scientific field, the first one who talk about Terraforming of Mars was Carl Sagan (1971) in a technical review: Planetary engineering on Mars. In Blues for the Red Planet, the fifth episode of his mythical television series Cosmos: A personal Voyage, he exposes his ideas to the public. Sagan’s plan for terraforming of Mars implies seeding its polar casquets with dark plants. These plants will be artificially selected or genetically modified to resist and “survive” the harsh conditions of Mars climate. The positive point gained with this seeding will be realeasing oxygen and darkening the martian surface, melting down the polar casquets and liberating the ancient martian atmosphere trapped in there. This fusion water could be transported to the equator by the construction of a network of channels, similarly to the one Percival Lowell believed an inexistent Martian civilization had constructed. Sagan’s opinion about the ethics of this terraforming process, in the case the planet result not sterile is categorical:

"If there is life on Mars, then I believe we should do nothing to disturb that life. Mars, then, belongs to the Martians, even if they are microbes."
Carl Sagan, the first scientist who thought about terraforming of Mars, holds a model of the red planet in his hands (Hulton Archive/Getty Images).

In the last years several review works about the concept of terraforming have appeared in the scientific literature. McKay and Marinova (2001) review the general aspects regarding the planetary ecosynthesis in the red planet and the ethics of that process. Graham (2004) has focused in the biological aspects of the creation of a biosphere on Mars and has delineated the stages of such a process. Finally Beech has written a book Terraforming: The Creation of Habitable Worlds (2009) in which the terraforming process is exhaustively analysed. To delve deeper into this exciting process, we recommend the reading of such works and the introduction to the survey of the ethics of terraforming that we have written.

Our project

Our ideas for the terraforming of Mars are inspired in Sagan's plan and comes from our conviction of the great usefulness of the tools Synthetic Biology provides us in the context of a planetary colonization.

Our project proposes sowing the martian surface with genetically modified yeasts to produce a dark pigment as melanin. This yeast will help to reduce the albedo and then to warm up the martian atmosphere (this will happen in a Mars partially terraformed). The sowing will be done in shallow seas or lakes in the northern plains, craters or impact basins like Hellas. Melanin synthesis by tyrosinase (EC requires oxygen, we know that, but we propose a simultaneous sow of oxygen-evolving cyanobacteries, which also will produce the necessary carbohydrates for the heterotrophic yeasts metabolism. The melanin will protect the yeasts against the ultraviolet radiation (Graham, 2004). To increase the yeast survival in a terraforming context, that despite to be partially terraformed will be quite harsh to such microorganisms, we propose the introduction in the yeasts of a LEA protein (SURVIVING MARS). This protein provides resistance against different temperature conditions (low and high) and high-salinity stresses.

In order to make Mars surface suitable for the introduction of our microorganism it would be necessary to implement previously a prebiotic stage aim to modify the pressure and the atmospheric composition to increase the temperature on the surface. To do that, it has been proposed the manufacturing and releasing of perfluorocarbons (PFCs) from the martian regolith. Another method would be the installation of orbiting mirrors that would increase the amount of sunlight reaching the surface. Both methods would warm up the atmosphere and increase the pressure enough to allow the sowing of microorganism.


The implementation of the project has several sub-objectives.

Martian conditions Simulation Chamber (MSC)

We reproduce some of the characteristics that make difficult the life in Mars with this chamber. Among them we can have the atmospheric pressure between 7 and 10 mbar and the gases composition (mainly carbon dioxid). Once we achieve this humble goal, we can use the MSC to try our engineered microorganisms and observe its behavior: if it grows, just only survives without growing or dies. It’s a very important part of the project because is an easy way to prove whether the microbes can grow or at least survive in an environment with such limitations as martian atmosphere can be.


In the other hand, in the beginnings our microorganisms are going to need an appropriate (or cozy) environment to grow. Regarding this, we have built a Red-House (an analogy with a greenhouse but in the red planet) in order to preserve the growing cultures until the atmospheric conditions reach the proper values to the microbial growth. The Red-House is a device designed to protect the microorganisms from the harsh conditions of temperature, pressure and radiation. The device is thermally isolated from the exterior media so we can warm its interior with electricity generated using wind turbines.

The idea to make this device was inspired by the reading of Robinson's Red Mars in wich the first martian colonist spread windmills to seed microorganism over the surface of Mars.

Prionic Switch test

The third phase is the test of the prionic switch in the original configuration. We want to test how the prionic switch respond to heat shock and another stress inputs, and if it inhibits the expression of the betaGAL reporter. In this situation we also want to see the effect of “the color” of the cultures in its surface temperature. Hopefully betaGAL blue is better (warmer) than white and red (Martian red).

LEA Experiments in E. Coli

The fourth part involves dealing with violent temperature changes of the Martian surface. To do this we will implement the expression of LEA (late embryogenesis abundant) “antifreeze” protein. Thus, we want to verify the resistance to cold shock and salt stress of the E. coli cultures who which express LEA and compare this result with the ones who doesn't (control cultures). This brings the new problem of which control cultures we shall use. The same E.coli with the pM2 plasmid but without the insert (this is probably the best option but the more difficult one) What happened with this issue guys???

Expresing LEA in Yeasts

The fifth part is to express LEA in Saccharomices Cereviciae. We have the W303 strain. We need to put together the LEA gene in an expression vector for Eukaryotes with a constitutive promoter and probably with a HSP promoter. (Update on this topic, please)

Melanin sinthesis modulation in Yeasts with a temperature activated prionic switch

Explanation needed here (Jose maybe???)