Using Synthetic Biology to Engineer Life to Survive on Mars and Aid Human Colonization | The Life Sciences |
A team of undergraduates from Stanford and Brown universities are applying synthetic biology to space exploration, outfitting microbes to survive extreme Martian conditions and produce resources needed to sustain a human colony.


Though Mars is potentially a place where life may have survived at some point, it is not an especially friendly environment, and thriving there will not be easy — for humans or microbes. The average surface temperature of Mars is minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and the almost-nonexistent atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide. Although water exists in Mars’ ice caps and there’s some evidence that giant oceans once covered the planet, today it’s essentially a deep-frozen desert. Colonizing Mars would be challenging and pricey.


The project is part of the International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) challenge, an annual synthetic biology competition that pits students around the world against each other in attempts to ingeniously hack living cells to perform new tasks. In a regional iGEM meet in October, Geilich’s team will present what they call a Hell Cell, a suite of genetically engineered parts that could enable a bacterium to withstand severe cold, dryness and radiation.


In the Stanford-Brown iGEM lab, students work on designing bacteria that could survive on Mars. (Lynn Rothschild)

The Hell Cell includes genetic modules, or BioBricks, based on DNA from a variety of ultra-tough organisms, including a cold-resistant species of Siberian beetle that makes “antifreeze” proteins, a radiation-resistant bacterium that sequesters large amounts of the element manganese, and E. coli, which produces a nutrient that confers cold and drought resistance. The team is also investigating heat- and acid-tolerance mechanisms that could be useful in other planetary environments.

Via Dr. Stefan Gruenwald