NASA Is Engineering Microbes to Make Bricks on Mars

bricks photoEsparta/CC BY 2.0

Plans for building structures on Mars are in the works, and it won't require a bunch of rocket-shipments of building supplies. Rather, a few boxes of specially designed space bugs that will build bricks for us.

New Scientist reports that NASA is working on these engineered microbes that will be able to feed on the material on the planet, such as the waste produced by astronauts, and would meld together the material on the planet's surface into "bricks".

According to New Scientist, Lynn Rothschild at the Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California, is leading the way with NASA's new Synthetic Biology Initiative.

Synthetic biology lies at the crossroads of biology and engineering. Its practitioners have built a biological toolkit consisting of chunks of genes, called biobricks, each of which performs a specific function [and] can be inserted into other microbes to give them that function.
The team...began with a bacterium called Sporosarcina pasteurii, which, unusually, breaks down urea - the principle waste product in urine - and excretes ammonium. This makes the local environment alkaline enough for calcium carbonate cements to form. As a proof of principle, Burnier's team confirmed in experiments that loose material can be cemented together in about two weeks to create a house brick with the compressive strength of concrete. They also managed to isolate the cement-building genetic component of the bacterium, creating a biobrick that they have inserted into E. coli to give this hardy bacterium the same cement-enabling properties.

So, to save the energy and resources it takes to deliver building materials to Mars, scientists would create a microbe that uses human waste to make those materials for us. Is it just me, or does anyone else agree we need this kind of thinking for saving resources and making something out of nothing applied to, oh, Planet Earth instead of Mars?

Tags: Concepts & Prototypes | Space | Technology


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