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‘Urban Biomining’ Could Be Used to Print Electronics on Earth and Beyond

Synthetic biology meets smart manufacturing.

The dream of landing humans on Mars seems more tangible than ever, thanks to ambitious projects in the works at NASA and SpaceX, among others. Scientists around the world are beginning to tackle the colossal challenges entailed by a crewed Martian mission.

Take Lynn Rothschild, an astrobiologist and evolutionary biologist based at NASA's Ames Research Center, who is developing "urban biomining," a technique in which modified microbes are used to extract materials that could support future Martian colonizers.

The idea is to synthetically enhance microbes into super-miners with special metal-binding flagella. These tiny Magnetos would be deployed in recycling units to draw out valuable materials from spent electronics, used equipment, or native Martian resources.

These elements could then be repurposed into brand new electronics with a plasma jet printer. The technique, which was was selected for funding under NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program in April 2016, could save astronauts the trouble of hauling minerals to Mars by allowing them to mine metals on the fly.

"Our vision is to use synthetic biology to enable a smart manufacturing tool to use the Martian atmosphere to tailor printable electronics," Rothschild said at the 2016 NIAC Symposium last August.

"We could do this on Earth, we could do this on the [International Space Station], we could do it beyond." she said. "Imagine that you could take this ground-up cell phone, or this piece of Martian regolith [...] and you could send in waves of bacteria that have been engineered to pull elements out one at a time."

Read More: How Synthetic Lifeforms Will Help Us Survive On and Off Earth

This microbe-based recycling plant would be the epitome of the phrase "many hands make light work" (many flagella, in this case). In addition to making sure Martian pioneers have access to raw materials, the modified organisms could also be utilized on Earth to process and recycle obsolescent electronics.

This is just the latest of many brain-gems from Rothschild and her team; she has also been at the forefront of exobiology, the study of potential alien life, and has experimented with making artificial organisms to survive on other worlds. Check out more on that work in this episode of "Exo," Motherboard's series on extraterrestrial life.

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