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Can plants grow on mars?

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Genetically modified plants could become pioneers in terraforming the red planet

Some dream not only of colonies in space, but also of converting suitable planets into habitable biospheres. The imagination concentrates primarily on Mars, on which life may have existed or even still exist. There have also already been a number of terraforming conferences that sought to explore how the unfriendly desert planet could be turned into a green and lively paradise. An experiment that would provide the first information about Mars as the home of plants could possibly be carried out during the NASA mission to Mars in 2007, provided that it is approved.

The project, funded by the Human Exploration and Development in Space department, plans to take 10 species of the field cress (Arabidopsis) with us to Mars. The plant is as popular as the fruit fly among animal researchers because it is very small, reproduces quickly and its entire genome with 25,000 genes has already been sequenced.

The project leaders, Robert Ferl, a biotechnologist at the University of Florida, and Andrew Schuerger of Dynamac Corp. and responsible for Mars projects, plan to send seeds of the genetically modified plants on the nine-month journey to the red planet. After landing, the landing vehicle’s robot would fetch earth from Mars, which would then be examined for its properties with a camera. After the soil has been fertilized or otherwise prepared according to the test results, it is placed in a small greenhouse in the landing vehicle, in which the seeds are then sown: “I am quite confident that we can let the plants grow if we have the pH values and know the oxidation in the Martian soil, “says Schuerger. “”We examine the soil before planting and then we can raise or lower the pH, flush out excess salt, and add nutrients if needed.””

The experiment should not only show whether the plants can grow in foreign soil, they should also serve as sensors. For this purpose, various “reporter genes” are built into the plants, which, for example, begin to bloom fluorescent green under adverse conditions (drought, temperature, disease). One variety should start to glow when there are too many heavy metals in the soil, another should light up blue when peroxides are present. The results will also be used to develop genetically better adapted plant varieties.

The long-term plan, however, is to be able to change Mars with such tailor-made plant varieties so that it becomes habitable for earthly life. Behind the idea of ​​terraforming is the realization that, after all, life has also rebuilt the initially inhospitable planet on earth. Plants would be important as pioneer plants because they break down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and, on the other hand, can enrich it with oxygen. Others think here of bacteria that are possibly more resistant and also on earth, like the cyanobacteria, have enriched the atmosphere with oxygen, while the previously existing anaerobic bacteria were thereby displaced.

However, a prerequisite for life is that there is water on Mars. The humidity is very low at 0.3 percent. The temperature fluctuations probably do not suit life on earth, even if it is genetically modified, any more than the average temperature of -60 degrees Celsius. Photosynthesis would probably not prevent the fact that a little less solar energy comes to Mars because of the greater distance to the sun. The opposite scenario would be important to that on Earth: If we have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to counter global warming, this would be urgently needed for Mars in order to raise the temperature. So you would have to release large amounts of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). But achieving a minimum rise in temperature of 60 degrees seems more than presumptuous, especially since the time required for terraforming, even if it could be done much faster than nature on Earth, would probably take humans much too long to To carry out such a project over many generations. Even when looking after our planet, we hardly think about the next generation.

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