Space agencies have taken great precautions not to contaminate celestial bodies with Earthly microbes – but some scientists believe introducing our germs to Mars could be beneficial.
A new paper has suggested that releasing human microbes will initiate the process of terraforming the red planet and create an environment that can sustain life.
The team has suggested developing a process that involves screening promising microbes and discarding dangerous ones prior to releasing them on Mars.
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A new paper has suggested that releasing human microbes will initiate the process of terraforming the red planet and create an environment that can sustain life
The newly proposed idea comes from Microbiology Ecology, microbiologist Jose Lopez, a professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, along with colleagues W. Raquel Peixoto and Alexandre Rosado from Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, who are calling this new theory a ‘major revision’, George Dvorsky with Gizmodo reported.
The team wants NASA and other space agencies to send Earthly germs to Mars, with the hopes of taming the unpredictable climate on the planet and creating a livable surface.
A major argument by the researchers is that the prevention of contamination is a ‘near impossibility,’ as the authors phrase it in the study.
However, space agencies have put specific protocols in place to prevent the contamination of other planets and experts have noted that more research needs to be done before we start polluting other worlds.
The team has suggested developing a process that involves screening promising microbes and discarding dangerous ones prior to releasing them on Mars. Pictured is the Glenelg area of Gale Crater on Mars
The idea of protecting celestial bodies dates back to the 1950s when the philosophy of planetary protection was created with a sole purpose of recommending and designing such protocols that protects space from Earthly microbes.
It argues that our germs can contaminate scientifically important areas of the solar system – similar to how a crime scene can be compromised if someone not involved touches evidence.
Although the idea of sterilization has been around for decades, Lopez and his team believe it is inevitable that our germs will make it to Mars and other planets.
‘Mainly, microbial introduction should not be considered accidental but inevitable,’ reads the paper published in FEMS Microbiology Ecology.
WHAT EVIDENCE DO SCIENTISTS HAVE FOR LIFE ON MARS?
The search for life on other planets has captivated mankind for decades.
But the reality could be a little less like the Hollywood blockbusters, scientists have revealed.
They say if there was life on the red planet, it probably will present itself as fossilized bacteria – and have proposed a new way to look for it.
Here are the most promising signs of life so far –
When looking for life on Mars, experts agree that water is key.
Although the planet is now rocky and barren with water locked up in polar ice caps there could have been water in the past.
In 2000, scientists first spotted evidence for the existence of water on Mars.
The Nasa Mars Global Surveyor found gullies that could have been created by flowing water.
The debate is ongoing as to whether these recurring slope lineae (RSL) could have been formed from water flow.
Earth has been hit by 34 meteorites from Mars, three of which are believed to have the potential to carry evidence of past life on the planet, writes Space.com.
In 1996, experts found a meteorite in Antarctica known as ALH 84001 that contained fossilised bacteria-like formations.
However, in 2012, experts concluded that this organic material had been formed by volcanic activity without the involvement of life.
Signs of Life
The first close-ups of the planet were taken by the 1964 Mariner 4 mission.
These initial images showed that Mars has landforms that could have been formed when the climate was much wetter and therefore home to life.
In 1975, the first Viking orbiter was launched and although inconclusive it paved the way for other landers.
Many rovers, orbiters and landers have now revealed evidence of water beneath the crust and even occasional precipitation.
Earlier this year, Nasa’s Curiosity rover found potential building blocks of life in an ancient Martian lakebed.
The organic molecules preserved in 3.5 billion-year-old bedrock in Gale Crater — believed to have once contained a shallow lake the size of Florida’s Lake Okeechobee — suggest conditions back then may have been conducive to life.
Future missions to Mars plan on bringing samples back to Earth to test them more thoroughly.
In 2018, Curiosity also confirmed sharp seasonal increases of methane in the Martian atmosphere.
Experts said the methane observations provide ‘one of the most compelling’ cases for present-day life.
Curiosity’s methane measurements occurred over four-and-a-half Earth years, covering parts of three Martian years.
Seasonal peaks were detected in late summer in the northern hemisphere and late winter in the southern hemisphere.
The magnitude of these seasonal peaks – by a factor of three – was far more than scientists expected.
‘We hypothesize the near impossibility of exploring new planets without carrying and/or delivering any microbial travelers.’
‘In addition, although we highlight the importance of controlling and tracking such contaminations—to explore the existence of extraterrestrial microorganisms—we also believe that we must discuss the role of microbes as primary colonists and assets, rather than serendipitous accidents, for future plans of extraterrestrial colonization.’
Lopez and his team are also arguing that microorganisms were what sparked the process that made our own planet habitable.
‘Life as we know it cannot exist without beneficial microorganisms,’ said Lopez in an NSU press release.
‘They are here on our planet and help define symbiotic associations—the living together of multiple organisms to create a greater whole.’
‘To survive on a barren (and as far as all voyages to date tell us) sterile planets, we will have to take beneficial microbes with us [to Mars].’
‘This will take time to prepare, discern and we are not advocating a rush to inoculate, but only after rigorous, systematic research on earth.’
They are also suggesting that if we are going to colonize Mars, we must look to the role our microbes play, but ‘ spreading germs around Mars is not to be done indiscriminately and without careful foresight’, the research team shared.
‘Instead, we envision a deliberate and measured program of research into microbial colonization, realizing the limits of current technologies,’ reads the paper.
‘Thus, we advocate a conservative schedule of microbial introductions into space, while also realizing that human colonization cannot be separate from microbial introductions.’
The team said extremophiles should be the first microbes released on the red planet, as this organism is capable of tolerating and even depends and thrives in harsh environmental conditions. Pictured is the Curiosity Rover on Mars
Now, Lopez is proposing what he and his team call a Proactive Inoculation Plan, which would involve screening promising microbes prior to releasing them on Mars.
This give scientists the ability to discard dangerous microbes and only using the ‘most productive’ ones in missions.
‘If humanity is seriously contemplating colonizing Mars, another planet or one of the nearby moons in the future, then people need to identify, understand and send the most competitive and beneficial pioneers,’ according to the paper.
‘Choosing or developing the most durable microbial taxa or communities may be done with deliberation, systematic research and current data, rather than sending random bacteria serendipitously hitchhiking on space stations’.
It is suggested that extremophiles should be the first microbes released on the red planet, as this organism is capable of tolerating and even depends and thrives in harsh environmental conditions.
‘Earth’s habitat was likely very inhospitable more than 4 billion years ago, but microbial life arose and evolved over time,’ Lopez and his team shared.
‘The first microbial colonists of extraplanetary bodies will likely derive from extremophiles.’
However, other experts in the field have come forward with ‘serious concerns; about the paper.
Steve Clifford, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute told Gizmodo that any mistake made by releasing Earthly microbes could ‘far outweigh any short-term gains’.
Clifford is not in denial that humans will eventually contaminate Mars but said, ‘we must follow the planetary protection equivalent of the Hippocratic Oath: ‘Above all else, do no harm’.
‘I believe that the potential contamination of an alien biosphere represents a serious ethical concern—because that is a legacy that we carry with us forever more,’ Clifford told Gizmodo in an email.
Like Huffman, he’s concerned that Earthly germs could complicate our ability to do science on Mars and said there’s no reason to believe current planetary protection schemes aren’t working.