Elon Musk Provides More Details of his thinking on Mars Colonization and I provide background on work to develop plants to grow on Mars

Dr. Crystal Dilworth has a fireside chat with space entrepreneur Elon Musk and inventor and computational neuroscientist Philip Low to discover how they are changing the world and why. Special thank you to David Franzen for hosting this late night chat at the Canadian Consul General’s Residence in Los Angeles.

Elon Musk compared the biological adaptations that could be required for humans or other organisms to live on Mars to the process of breeding cows to conform to our needs as a society. The problem is that modern cattle are the product of hundreds of generations of tweaking to various breeds, but future space explorers won’t have the luxury of being bred for the job of colonizing Mars through the centuries.

Instead, he suggests that “while it’s a tricky subject… we’d probably want to create synthetic organisms.” A tricky subject indeed — will we need to create more perfect clones of our finest astronauts to begin colonizing the rest of our solar system? Or maybe just start with some super radiation-resistant hermit crabs that can setup some burrows to get things going?

Musk didn’t directly answer a question about whether SpaceX would be interested in conducting initial research into the feasibility of a Martian colony, but he did make it clear that it’s something he’s looked into in detail. He explained that, in his view, a key step to getting established on Mars would be to compress the amount of time it takes to make the trip from Earth to our neighbor planet.

Many years ago, Freeman Dyson discussed the idea of warm blooded plants for space agriculture.

Many species of terrestrial plants, including the skunk cabbage that sprouts in February in the woods of Princeton, New Jersey, where I live, are warm-blooded to a limited extent. For about two weeks the skunk cabbage maintains a warm temperature by rapidly metabolizing starch stored inside the part of its anatomy known as the spadix, which contains the hidden flowers with their male and female structures. According to folklore, the spadix is warm enough to melt snow around it. The evolutionary advantage of warm-bloodedness to the plant is probably that it attracts small beetles or other insects that linger in the spadix and pollinate the flowers. The spadix is not a greenhouse, and the supply of starch is not sufficient to maintain a warm temperature year-round. No terrestrial plants are able to stay warm through an Arctic winter. On Earth polar bears can flourish in colder climates than trees can. It seems to be an accident of history that warm-blooded animals evolved on Earth to colonize cold climates, whereas warm-blooded plants did not. On Mars plants might have been pushed to yet more drastic adaptations.

There has been work to design and determine how to grow plants on Mars.

NASA-funded scientists are designing plants that can survive the harsh conditions on Mars. These plants could provide oxygen, fresh food, and even medicine to astronauts while living off their waste. They would also improve morale as a lush, green connection to Earth in a barren and alien world.

A pdf of a 2006 presentation updating the work to design plants to survive on Mars [this article was posted on Oct 26, 2006 and has been updated]

Gluthathione Reductase (GOR) from Colwellia psychrerythraea was cloned and overexpressed in E coli and is cold active.

They are putting GOR into plants and selecting the transformed plants over the next 10 months.

Develop plants to resist ROS stress under extreme environment of low Oxygen and pressure. This is for the next 3 years

Produce transgenic plants with improved growth and productivity at low temperature and water availability. This is targeted for 5 years time.

Enhance ability for plant to resist and repair radiation damage, 10 years

Collaborate with scientists to use this technology in non-model systems 10-15 years.

The goal is to redesign plants to withstand increased stress by expressing genes from extremophiles (organisms that can live extreme conditions on earth).

The same methods for make plants tough enough to grow on the Moon and Mars can be used to make plants that can grow in the desert. Waterproof sand helps conserve 75% of the water used for irrigation. Genetically engineered plants and waterproof sand can transform the deserts of the world and the lives of people who depend on water and food from currently inhospitable land.

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