NASA's Earth plants could invade Mars
by David Perlman
Monday, July 2, 2001
San Francisco Chronicle
With the aid of glowing jellyfish, a team of NASA scientists is proposing a mission to test the soil of Mars for its ability to sustain life.
They would do it by growing genetically engineered plants from Earth in Martian soil, which robotic equipment would scoop aboard a sealed laboratory greenhouse to be landed on the planet. Transplanted jellyfish genes would cause the plants to glow if the unfamiliar dirt gave them trouble.
Christopher P. McKay, an astrobiologist at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, has long championed the idea that it may be possible one day to transform the Martian climate and atmosphere to make the planet habitable for humans.
Now, he plans to submit his "modest" project proposal to NASA as a small start toward that long-term goal. If mission planners agree the idea has merit,
McKay and Robert Ferl, a University of Florida plant geneticist, would land a small laboratory on the planet's surface and grow flowers there.
Their Mars lander would scoop a few spoonfuls of Martian soil into an isolated pressure capsule containing genetically altered seeds of the common flowering mustard plant called Arabidopsis thalania. Nourished aboard the spacecraft with nutrients from Earth, the plants could get their carbon dioxide and moisture from the Martian atmosphere.
The plants would be engineered to glow with different frequencies depending on what sort of problems they encounter, such as insufficient carbon dioxide, toxicity from heavy metals in the soil, too much peroxide, thirst or heat shock.
"We'd just be asking the plant, ‘How are you feeling?'" McKay said. "And if it's one small step for Arabidopsis, it's one giant step for life on the planet, and I'm a chauvinist for life."
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