'Is sending humans to Mars necessary?'

'Is sending humans to Mars necessary?'

Why send humans to Mars or other planets when you can send a biologically engineered or synthetic organism instead?

The concept may sound more like science fiction than reality, but it is a possibility scientists are increasingly looking at in the quest to inhabit worlds other than earth.

Delivering a lecture here on Wednesday, Pete Worden, Chairman, Breakthrough Prize Foundation, and former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, talked about the possibility of a synthetic biology initiative where scientists could engineer biology of organisms and transport the same to other worlds.

“Cyanobacteria (blue green algae) is one of the oldest bacteria to exist on earth. We think that we can engineer it to produce a lot of things one needs in another world. So, rather than transmitting stuff we will transmit data, we can then print it out to life elsewhere, this seems like science fiction but we think that the technology is already here,” said Worden.

He also talked about his experience working with Craig Venter, one of the pioneers in the field of bioengineering, while undertaking an experiment in the Mojave Desert in the US.
“We took cyanobacteria from rocks, decoded its DNA signature and transmitted it to Craig’s library, and tried to reconstruct it,” he said.

Explaining the concept of synthetic biology as a means to transport life in other worlds, Worden said: “You can send a three-dimensional printer and you can teleport life. Say you wanted to plant a settlement on Mars, rather than sending all sorts of infrastructure one only needs to send 3D printer and that will print out habitations and eventually genomes and even human genomes, this is how technology is beginning to develop, so that you could settle in other worlds in this way rather than sending humans. This way, it may also be possible to go interstellar distances. This technology is developing very quickly.”

Worden also spoke about a synthetic biology experiment undertaken by NASA’s Ames Research Center when he was a director with the German space agency. Much of the discussion about manned space explorations in recent times has revolved around the question of sending missions to and colonising Mars.

Examples are the Mars One Mission and the US-based business magnate Elon Musk’s Mars Colonization project. Worden, however, felt that the prospect of finding life on Mars was highly improbable.

He was in Bengaluru as part of the Breakthrough Initiative, a $100-million project to establish contact with extraterrestrial life that was announced on July 20.

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