Elon Musk knows that Mars will not be terraformed in his lifetime. Still, the SpaceX and Tesla renaissance man does have a vague plan on how to seed life there: He wants to team with legendary geneticist Craig Venter to print life on the Red Planet.
Printing life is not something that's going to be done tomorrow, but, as we've covered before, it's not a line of thinking that's totally unprecedented or outside the realm of possibility. Some of NASA's very best scientists believe that in order to colonize other planets, we'll need to encode the human genome into bacteria, send those bacteria into space, and reassemble the genomic data they carry once they finally land on another planet.
This is a school of thought that Musk also subscribes to, which is notable, because Musk is, at the moment, the single human most likely to enable our colonization of other planets.
Musk doesn't want to print humans, per se. Instead, he wants to print bacteria and other organisms that will eventually help us terraform Mars using a “digital biological converter” developed by Venter that can take take raw DNA code, implant it into a “universal recipient cell,” and bring it to life.
"I think biological teleportation is what is going to truly enable the colonization of Mars," Venter told Ashlee Vance, author of a new biography of Musk coming out on Tuesday. "Elon and I have been talking about how this might play out."
"Eventually, you'd need to heat Mars up if you want it to be an Earthlike planet, and I don't have a plan for that"
Venter is well known for his work on the Human Genome Project, which, as the name suggests, was the first to sequence an entire human genome. He was also the first to create "synthetic life" by removing the genetic code within a bacteria and replacing it with a synthetic genome.
Venter's genome printer would play more of a support role in this scenario, allowing humans to potentially print life that could survive outside of whatever life support structure Musk would want to set up there. Vance notes that a DNA printer on Mars would allow "humans to create medicines, food, and helpful microbes for early settlers of the planet."
That's important, because Musk himself told Vance that he thinks it's possible to create a self-sustaining Martian colony, but moving outside of enclosed greenhouses and other housing structures is a problem he hasn't tackled yet. If we ever want to live on Mars and not remain tethered to life support systems or within enclosed structures, we'll need to terraform it.
"Eventually, you'd need to heat Mars up if you want it to be an Earthlike planet, and I don't have a plan for that," Musk said. "There's zero chance of it being terraformed and Earthlike in my lifetime. Not zero, but .0001 percent chance, and you would have to take real drastic measures with Mars."
Venter's "Digital Biological Converter" is still a prototype more or less, but it has backing from the DARPA within the Department of Defense. At the moment, it only prints DNA, but he hopes to one day have it spit out living cells. Venter says the “ink” of this printer will be a universal recipient cell that can have any sort of DNA spliced into it and brought to life.
"If you solve the transport problem, it's not that hard to make a pressurized transparent greenhouse to live in"
"Venter intends DBCs to print living cells, using an automated and improved version of the process behind his 2010 breakthrough synthetic cell," a Guardian profile of Venter noted. "Work on that is currently underway, with the focus on creating what he calls the 'universal recipient cell,' a kind of biological blank slate able to receive any synthetic genome and come to life."
Other work Venter has been doing would allow NASA and other scientists to send the genetic code of something discovered on Mars back to Earth, where it could be printed in a laboratory in order to be studied.
"Having alien species being beamed back here and being recreated does sound like science fiction but it is potentially real," Venter told The Guardian.
But there's no reason the same process wouldn't work the other way around, allowing someone at Musk's Martian colony to print some of Earth's extremophiles, which would hopefully be able to survive on Mars and which would be able to, in theory, be able to very, very slowly change the Martian landscape to one more hospitable for humans.
Musk estimates it would take somewhere "between a century and a millennium" to terraform Mars. In the meantime, early colonists would live in controlled, closed environments.
"I think it's highly likely that there will be a self-sustaining Martian colony. There will be enough people interested who will sell their stuff on Earth and move," Musk said.
"You move, get a job there, and make things work. If you solve the transport problem, it's not that hard to make a pressurized transparent greenhouse to live in. But if you can't get there in the first place, it doesn't matter."
Musk, of course, is working on that part. If he succeeds, maybe Venter will help him with the rest.