Engineered microbes could aid in the settlement of life in space, NASA Ames Research Center's director said at a Stanford conference on Tuesday.
Altered bacteria could provide the necessary ingredients for life, such as breathable air, on places like Mars or the moon, S. Pete Worden told the annual symposium of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Program.
"We can edit the genome to help us live in space," he said.
Specifically, a new NASA project called Synthetic Biology Initiative is studying the potential of designer microbes -- based on tiny organisms called cyanobacterium, or blue-green algae -- to convert the toxic atmospheres of planets like Mars or Venus into more hospitable environments.
"It will be the basic scaffolding" to support life, "at least initially," he said. The initiative is led by Lynn Rothschild at the Ames Research Center at Moffett Field.
"I can imagine a future where we live on Mars or the moon and rather than transmit stuff, we transmit information and print what we need," he said.
These microbes are thought to be responsible for Earth's "Great Oxidation Event" 2.45 billion years ago. In another billion years, oxygen levels were high enough -- 20 percent of the atmosphere -- to enable the evolution of animals.
They conduct photosynthesis, using sunshine, water and carbon dioxide to produce carbohydrates and oxygen.
Such creatures would be manufactured using synthetic biology, a new field at the crossroads of biology and engineering. Its practitioners insert genes into other microbes to get them to perform specific functions.
The NASA symposium is held every year to seek innovative and technically credible advanced concepts that could accelerate our nation's goal to better understand our solar system and the universe.
See a video of the symposium at www.livestream.com/niac2014. Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.