This is a continuation of my June Out of This World article, so take a gander at it first. While we have one group of researchers turning to genetic engineering to change the face of humanity and send us to the stars, we have another group investigating terraforming. DARPA or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – a wing of the Pentagon – is creating organisms to terraform Mars. It’s not a secret or even surprising that DARPA invests in genetic engineering. I think we’re all aware genetic manipulation is the future of significant progress and terrible destruction.
DARPA is working on a system to quickly engineer a vast array of organisms. E. coli and yeast are commonly used in synthetic biology. Researchers want to harness the expansive genome library to create new organisms by selecting the best genes for a given situation and editing them into novel life forms. They site applications like ending vector-borne illnesses and rehabbing destroyed ecosystems by creating an extremophile organism that can thrive in the aftermath of an environmental disaster. This is a neat idea that could help rebuild our own planet from human devastation. But what about Mars?
There is this preconceived idea that Mars is a barren wasteland – all red rock, hard earth and unforgiving radiation. What could survive on Mars? Extremophiles, of course. These are the alien creatures researchers are after, not lightbulb-headed aliens with three fingers and green skin. If you’re from an older generation or just a huge Star Trek nerd like myself, think Wrath of Kahn. Dr. Marcus needs a dead planet to study her terraforming machine, Genesis, because it will eradicate the native microbial life. Same theory applies here. Mars is not likely to be entirely dead, especially since it still has seasonal ice flows.
Studies have predicted that extremophiles will long out live humans, even in the face of massive radiation or an asteroid collision making the planet virtually uninhabitable – just like Mars. In this new era of colonization, what are the ethics of destroying native life on another planet to transplant it with our own? Some people won’t care about this. They’ll say the ends justify the means, something humans have said many times before and history has often borne them out as assholes. They’ll say that humans must move on because we’ll never solve our problems at home; we can’t band together as a species to save a planet that already has everything we need to survive. It’s a cute thought, as though moving our species to space will somehow leave our problems behind, that our rivalries will dissipate instead of extrapolate. Fights over territory, technology and ownership are human habits that follow us wherever we go. What I see is a species always outrunning its destruction by our own hands. However, I am comforted by the majestic water bear, knowing that it will survive long after our own destruction gives me hope.