It’s no secret that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is investing heavily in genetic engineering and synthetic biology. Whether that excites or terrifies you depends on how you feel about the military engineering totally new life forms. If you’re in the excitement camp, however, here’s a nugget for you: DARPA believes that it's on the way to creating organisms capable of terraforming Mars into a planet that looks more like Earth.
The goal of terraforming Mars would be to warm up and potentially thicken its atmosphere by growing green, photosynthesizing plants, bacteria, and algae on the barren Martian surface. It’s a goal that even perpetual techno-optimists like Elon Musk think isn’t going to happen anytime soon, but it’s a goal that DARPA apparently already has its eyes on.
“For the first time, we have the technological toolkit to transform not just hostile places here on Earth, but to go into space not just to visit, but to stay,” Alicia Jackson, deputy director of DARPA’s new Biological Technologies Office said Monday at a DARPA-hosted biotech conference. As she said this, Jackson was pointing at an artist's rendering of a terraformed Mars.
One piece of DTA Gview that allows scientists to see specific genes rather than a series of As, Ts, and Gs. Image: Jason Koebler
So what’s this technological toolkit she’s talking about? For the last year, Jackson’s lab has been working on learning how to more easily genetically engineer organisms of all types, not just e. coli and yeast, which are most commonly used in synthetic biology projects.
“There are anywhere from 30 million to 30 billion organisms on this Earth. We use two right now for engineering biology,” she said. “I want to use any organism that has properties I want—I want to quickly map it and quickly engineer it. If you look at genome annotation software today, it’s not built to quickly find engineer able systems [and genes]. It’s built to look for an esoteric and interesting thing I can publish an academic paper on.”
DARPA and some of its research partners have created software called DTA GView, which Jackson calls the “Google Maps of genomes.” At the conference, she pulled up the genomes of several organisms on the program, which immediately showed a list of known genes and where they were located in the genome.
“This torrent of genomic data we’re now collecting is awesome, except they sit in databases, where they remain data, not knowledge. Very little genetic information we have is actionable,” she said. “With this, the goal is to, within a day, sequence and find where I can best engineer an organism.”
The goal is to essentially pick and choose the best genes from whatever form of life we want and to edit them into other forms of life to create something entirely new. This will probably first happen in bacteria and other microorganisms, but it sounds as though the goal may to do this with more complex, multicellular organisms in the future.
The utility of having such a capability is pretty astounding: Jackson threw out goals of eradicating vector-borne illnesses, which obviously sounds lovely and utopian. But perhaps more interesting is DARPA’s plan to use specifically engineered organisms to help repair environmental damage. Jackson said that after a natural or man-made disaster, it’d be possible to engineer new types of extremophile organisms capable of surviving in a scarred wasteland. As those organisms photosynthesized and thrived, it would naturally bring that environment back to health, she said.
And that’s where terraforming Mars comes in. With enough practice turning Earth’s damaged landscapes back into places hospitable for life, Jackson thinks we’ll have what it takes to eventually try to colonize the solar system. This is something that obviously doesn’t even really have a timeline, it’s technology that’s in its infancy, and much of the work being done is classified—but the implications are exciting nonetheless.
“After a manmade or natural disaster, we can think about recovering the environment,” she said. “These are the tools that, for the first time, are allowing us to go after that problem.”