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We must deliberately contaminate Mars with our germs, controversial spore research

Image : NASA

A research team proposes a major philosophical change in our thinking germs in space and in particular Mars. Considering that interplanetary pollution was "inevitable", the team argued that future Martian colonists should use microorganisms to reshape the Red Planet – a proposal deemed too unbearable by some experts.

In an article published last month in FEMS Microbiology Ecology, microbiologist Jose Lopez, a professor at the University of New Southeastern Florida, together with colleagues W. Rachel Peixoto and Alexander Rosado of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, presented a major revision "of the modern philosophies behind space exploration and planet conservation policies as they relate to the spread of microorganisms in space.

Instead of worrying about the pollution of alien celestial bodies – something NASA and other space agencies take great care to avoid – Lopez and his co-authors make it a point to deliberately send our germs into outer space and that the spread of our germs must be part of a larger colonization strategy to curb Mars' climate. A key argument suggested by the researchers is that pollution prevention is "almost impossible", as the authors put it in the study.

"The introduction of a microbe should not be considered accidental but inevitable."

A change in such a policy would be in sharp contrast to conventional thinking on the subject. Some of the experts we've been talking to at the current protocols to prevent us from infecting another planet may be working as far as we know, and we shouldn't just give up so easily. Moreover, experts said there is still a lot of science to be done on Mars and beyond before we can have fun with this irresistible opportunity.

At present, the larger scientific community agrees on the need to prevent microbial contamination of planetary bodies such as Mars. NASA, ESA and other space agencies carefully and expensively sterilize their instruments before launching them at nearby celestial targets.

The philosophy of planetary protection, or PP, dates from the late 1950s and the creation of the Space Research Committee (COSPAR), established by the International Council of Scientific Unions. COSPAR, among other issues, develops recommendations and protocols designed to protect space from our germs. Similarly, the United Nations Outer Space Treaty on outer space which has been signed by over 100 nations, specifically states:

States parties to the Treaty will conduct space exploration, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and carry out studies on them to avoid harmful pollution, as well as adverse changes in the environment of the Earth as a result of the introduction of alien matter and, where necessary, adopt appropriate measures to that end. If a State party to the Treaty has reason to believe that its activities in space or experiment, including the moon and other celestial bodies, planned by it or its citizens, could cause potentially harmful interference with the activities of other States Parties to the Peace Agreement exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, it conducts appropriate international consultations before undertaking such an activity or experiment.

The basic rationale behind this thinking is that our germs have the potential to contaminate scientifically important places in the solar system, thus impairing our ability to discover the root microbial life of Mars and other worlds. Finding traces of Mars DNA or RNA, for example, would not automatically mean that they originate on Earth, since these molecules could be a major and ubiquitous building block of evolution in the universe. It is perhaps even more problematic to fear that invasive terrestrial life may sink the alien ecosystem before we even have a chance to study it.

On the other hand, Lopez and his colleagues believe that it will be impossible to prevent germs from encroaching on the sites we are exploring, so it is also possible to have a rational discussion on how to best use microorganisms in our advantage. In particular, the authors refer to the prospect of thermal formation – the hypothetical practice of geoengineering on a planet to make it more Earth-like.

Martian surface, as seen from space.
Image : ESA / DLR / FU Berlin

Considering the ancient history of Earth as a precedent, the authors recognize the critical role that microorganisms play in promoting the habitation of our planet, including the production of oxygen, regulation of gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen and the degradation of organic and inorganic materials.

"Life, as we know it, cannot exist without beneficial microorganisms," Lopez said in the NSU release release. "They are here on our planet and help define symbiotic associations – the coexistence of multiple organisms to create a larger whole. In order to survive on sterile (and as far as we have been told by all journeys so far) sterile planets, we will need to take useful germs with us [to Mars]. This will take time to prepare, understand, and we do not advocate rapid inoculation, but only after rigorous and systematic ground surveys. "

The key to their argument is the recognition of our transition from researchers to colonists. The authors claim that life may or may have existed elsewhere in the solar system. "The absence of any discoveries or evidence of life from any of the last space missions and probes that have left Earth orbit indicates only one unique presence of life in our immediate solar system," they write.

Lopez and his colleagues argue that if we are to take seriously the colonization of Mars, we will have to consider the role our germs play. But the spread of germs around Mars should not be done indiscriminately and without careful foresight, they say.

"Instead, we envisage a thoughtful and measured program for the study of microbial colonization, recognizing the boundaries of modern technology. In this way, we advocate a conservative schedule for the introduction of germs into space, while recognizing that human colonization cannot be separated from microbial introductions. "

To this end, researchers have proposed a proactive inoculation plan or PIP. Such a plan will be drawn up before each long-term mission and will include screening for promising microbial candidates. Dangerous germs would be discarded while only future missions would be included for future missions, as the authors write:

If humanity is seriously considering colonizing Mars, another planet, or one of the nearby moons in the future, then humans must identify, understand, and send out the most competitive and profitable pioneers. The selection or development of the most durable microbe [species] or communities can be done with thought, systematic research and ongoing data instead of sending random bacteria continuously to landing space stations.

Extremophiles – microbes capable of living in the harshest environments on Earth – would be the first microbes scattered on Mars, probably buried a few meters underground, to protect them from freezing and surface radiation.

But as the authors themselves admit, "full control of a complete microbial inventory [species] and their genomes sent into space can never be realistically achieved," and "extracting germs once sent may not be possible." In other words, we will never have full control or knowledge of the process, nor will we be able to stop it once we begin.

The authors do not provide specific data as to when the first microbes should be planted on Mars or how long it will take for microorganisms to produce the desired effects – assuming that they will even work. The question is open, for example, if germs, even extremophiles, can function on the Martian surface, where extremely low air pressure moves around a small 0.7 kPa, which is not too far from the conditions found in outer space. Mars' low gravity, coupled with intense solar radiation hitting the surface, further complicates the picture.

But even if it works, the included time ranges must discourage even the most optimistic future Martian colonists. On Earth, these processes require hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of years of patient suffering from germs (eg, oxygen production through photosynthesis by cyanobacteria).

Bruce Jakoski, a professor of geology at the University of Colorado and an expert on the prospect of building Mars, said the authors propose some "very dramatic changes" to the world planetary protection protocol, as he wrote in an email to Gizmodo.

"These [recommendations] seem to contradict decades of the approach we have taken to PP," Iakoski said. "I welcome the opportunity to continue to discuss how the PP should be implemented and whether changes should be made to it, but I am concerned about proposals that recommend such changes on a full scale, without examining in detail their implications from an objective point of view."

Oxford University physicist Todd Huffman stated that the authors made a mistake in logic, claiming that it was impossible to completely sterilize a spacecraft on Earth, and therefore we should not even try. Huffman believes that we must most certainly try, and that there is a very good chance of succeeding with our planetary protection schemes, whether it is through Earth protocols, the devastating effects of deep space exposure, or the harsh conditions already in place on Mars,

As far as we know, the Curiosity rover has not introduced germs to Mars.
Image : NASA

"There are already quite a few probes that have landed on the surface of Mars since 1976. All have so far been subject to extreme sterilization protocols. from COSPAR, "Huffman wrote to Gizmodo in an email. "To date, none have found Martian – or terrestrial – germs or evidence of them. Which means COSPAR really works. So not only is their argument not held in one place by their own merits, but their claim that it is impossible to keep pollutants away from a planet like Mars has proved unfounded so far, "he said. To which he added: "My opinion is that if it doesn't break, don't fix it. The COSPAR protocols seem to keep Earth's faults off Mars as we study this planet for any native organisms. We should not mess with them unless we want to tighten them further. "

Huffman disagrees that ultimately we might want to introduce germs to Mars the way the authors describe, but it would be" a huge scientific mistake to release COSPAR protocols in any world that we have yet to determine that he is dead, "requiring us to keep" our bugs beyond Mars, Europe, Enceladus and maybe even Titan, "he said. "At least for now."

"We must follow the equivalent of the planetary defense of Hippocrates' oath:" First of all, do no harm. "

Steve Clifford, a senior scientist at the Institute for Planetary Sciences, said he had" serious concerns "about the new book. Ultimately, he believes that the potential consequences of error by relaxing planetary protection standards "far exceed short-term profits." Ultimately, we can infect Mars, he said, but until then, "we must follow the planet's equivalent of Hippocrates' oath. ". : "Above all, do no harm."

"I think the potential contamination of the alien biosphere is a serious ethical concern – because it is a legacy we carry with us forever," Clifford told Gizmodo in an email. Like Huffman, he worries that terrestrial germs can complicate our ability to do Mars science, and said there is no reason to believe that current planetary protection schemes are not working.

"If life evolved on Mars or in the subterranean oceans of the icy moons of the outer planets, it probably survived on these bodies for billions of years," Clifford stated. "Finding the life of any of these bodies would be deeply relevant to our understanding of the spread of life in the universe."

With regard to claims that the implementation of planetary protection protocols is too costly, Clifford said, that the associated extra costs, which typically amount to about 20 percent of mission costs, are worth it.

"As we explore the potentially habitable environment of our solar system, we must answer – as categorically as possible – whether there is any root life before sending people there at all," Clifford said. "And if these environments prove lifeless, then the need to comply with existing planetary protection standards evaporates. But if we are to find life, then I think we need to have a serious discussion that weighs our desire to colonize and harness the resources of the solar system against ethical concern to challenge the potential extinction of the first examples of extraterrestrial life that we

at the time, he did not believe that there was any apparent fate for colonizing the solar system before we were able to conduct an in-depth search for extraterrestrial life, "whether such a search takes 50 years or several centuries," he said he. Until then, "there are many lifeless places in the solar system – such as the moon and asteroids – that humans can explore, colonize and extract resources from," Clifford says.

Lopez and his colleagues apparently hit a sore spot. None of the experts we spoke with had major objections to the use of germs as part of the colonization and terraforming process at some future time. Rather, they were annoyed by the claim that we were on the verge of moving from the exploration phase to the colonization stage and that we needed to start mobilizing our resources – and our microbial assets – accordingly.

As we approach an era where we are capable of sending people to the Red Planet, this debate will undoubtedly continue to be heated.

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