How Microbes Will Let Us Explore Other Planets

Senior Contributor

As we all know, one of humanity’s greatest goals is, or at least should be, getting off this rock and colonizing other planets. The way we act, it’s going to be fairly crucial that we do that pretty soon.

One problem, though: Actually moving to and colonizing another planet isn’t just expensive and dangerous, it’s full of other sticky problems to deal with.

For example, say you get the colonists to Mars. OK, so what do they eat? How do they breathe? How do you guarantee a potable water supply?

For that, we must turn to our little infectious friend, the microbe. NASA has decided the future of space exploration is really, really tiny.

This isn’t really a surprise. As research into biotechnology has increased, we’ve come across stuff that ranges from potentially world-changing to just plain weird. There are viruses that create electricity when you squish them. Researchers are currently coaxing a microbe found in soil to poop out a gasoline-like substance. Bacteria have been found that self-produce oxygen.

It’s exciting because if NASA can make this stuff work, it will make colonization feasible in our lifetimes. It would still take a lot of time and planning and flaming dump-trucks of grant money to get it done, but it would make it possible. We can already put a robot on Mars, and micro-organisms don’t weigh much.

There is of course the small problem that these tiny buggers could mutate and, er, kill the colonists. But, hey, nobody said pioneering space was without risk.

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Dan Seitz is a grad student and freelance writer. He currently lives in Boston.

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