The idea of genetically engineering living things makes a lot of people feel uneasy, including science fiction writers who often caution against such practices in their novels. Although humans genetically engineering plants and animals has been going on for hundreds of years, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) researchers are hoping to take this to the next level by genetically engineering organisms that can fix Earth’s damaged environment and eventually, terraform Mars.
At a recent conference, DARPA discussed its plan to engineer plants, bacteria, and algae that could grow on an otherwise barren Martian surface. DARPA wants to refine and apply these skills so that someday we can warm up Mars and thicken its atmosphere for future colonization.
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
From simple to complex organisms
According to Jackson, DARPA’s new biological technologies lab has spent the past year learning how to genetically engineer organisms beyond just e. coli and yeast. “There are anywhere from 30 million to 30 billion organisms on this Earth. We use two right now for engineering biology,” said Jackson.
Using bacteria and other microorganisms, DARPA is investigating how to take the best genes from a particular living thing and edit them into other forms of life to create newer forms of
disgruntled life. Eventually, DARPA plans to genetically engineer more complex, multicellular organisms.
Helping to make this process simpler is a software program that DARPA and some of its partners have created called DTA GView, which Jackson has dubbed the “Google Maps of genomes.” Jackson goes on to say that “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. With this [DTA GView], the goal is to, within a day, sequence and find where I can best engineer an organism.”
DARPA aims to fix Earth’s environment, then terraform Mars
It’s not just about Mars. In fact, DARPA is hoping to use this technology to repair environmentally damaged parts of our own planet:
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.
These are lofty goals, and DARPA is most likely decades away from perfecting the kind of genetic engineering that will fix the environmental damage we are creating on our planet, much less the ability to terraform Mars.