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Life on Mars - attempt to grow moss in space

A group of students are taking the first steps in genetically modifying moss so it can grow on our colder planetary neighbour

A group of students is genetically modifying the green flowerless plant so it can be medicine or food for a future permanent human outpost on the planet Mars.

This is in conjunction with the so-called iGEM competition, the global student competition in Synthetic Biology. The Copenhagen team is called SpaceMoss and it is also trying to modify the moss so it produces an antifreeze gene to resist the extreme cold on the planet.

“We got the genes to modify the moss now and in a couple of weeks the transformations should be done,” says Jonathan Arnesen, a University of Copenhagen student who is on the SpaceMoss team.

Someday astronauts will be able to plant fields

“Going to Mars is difficult. Not only for the astronauts but also for whatever living organism they might bring with them. For in order to create a sustainable colony on Mars the would-be colonizers would need biological systems to sustain them, instead of relying solely on costly shipments sent from earth,” explains Jonathan Arnesen.

The iGEM SpaceMoss team plan to take the first steps in creating such a biological system. They have chosen moss because it is a hardy plant.

One of the two Mars Environmental Chambers the SpaceMoss group is using to test how moss thrives in a martian environment

“We plan to use the well studied species, Physcomitrella patens, and make the moss even more hardy by altering its genes to make it able to survive the extremely hostile martian conditions. For instead of having to grow plants in greenhouses isolated from the martian atmosphere, we believe that the astronauts could someday plant entire fields of usable plants on Mars,” says Jonathan Arnesen.

Subjecting moss to radiation, deep freeze

There are many factors on Mars that may prove fatal to living organisms, he explains, such as pressure, atmosphere or radiation.

“But as a first step, we focus on the very cold nights on Mars, where the temperatures in some regions go down to -153 degrees celsius but near the mid-latitudes go down to -60. To adresss this we will us a gene from an insect, the spruce budworm Choristoneura fumiferana. This gene allows the insect to survive very cold conditions by protecting the insect’s bodily fluid from the formation of ice crystals. We will insert this gene into the genome of Physcomitrella patens thus making it more resistant to cold.”

“At the same time, we are simulating martian conditions in the laboratory and testing which conditions will prove fatal to the moss. This is done by subjecting the moss to radiation, freezing temperatures and other martian-like conditions,” says Jonathan Arnesen.

Cool project

Moss, of course, does not provide much nutrition or obvious benefits for the astronauts. But the group also also intends to insert other genes, that allows moss to produce resveratrol, the healthy compound in red wine that has cardiovascular benefits for humans. If this works, then other compounds and medicines could be produced in moss as well. In this manner the astronauts could be provided with a sustainable supply of medicines that they can simple grow directly on the martian soil.

SpaceMoss is an interdisciplinary project that combines the fields of Astrophysics and Synthetic Biology. The team consists of nine students from both Copenhagen Business School (CBS) and the fields of physics and biology. Team members consider this as an advantage over the other teams:

”Our project is definitely cooler than the usual cross-faculty team work”, says SpaceMoss member Jophiel Wiis.

Members of SpaceMoss are trying to create a sustainable environment on Mars. Their project is part of a wider attempt to tease chemicals out of moss

For synthetic biology competition

The experiments and projects undertaken by the SpaceMoss group are interdisciplinary. The members get the chance to work at the Mars Environmental Chamber at the Niels Bohr Institute. The project is also underlined with plenty of creative ideas including a cartoon and short films.

”We definitely learn a lot. Even if you don’t know something about the research fields of the other team members, your are, on the other side, also a local expert in your field”, says another SpaceMoss member and UCPH student Christina Toldbo.

The iGEM competition for synthetic biology began in 2003 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and brings together graduate and postgraduate students from all over the world. For six months, the student teams are responsible for the whole research project. The students have to take care of everything from web design and entrepreneurship to outreach and funding.

There are 281 groups taking part in iGEM this year. The teams will meet in September in Boston for the final event, where they can win prizes for their work.

But the prizes aren’t the only take away from the competition. The students also take away a lot of new skills and knowledge about engaging in interdisciplinary research: ”Especially communication, because we all come from different fields of study”, mentions UCPH team member Victoria Sosnovtseva

The SpaceMoss group

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