This Bacteria Could Help Humans to Colonize Mars, Hunt for Alien Life

A study into a group of hardy organisms that can survive inhospitable conditions could one day help humans to colonize Mars and provide clues as to where we might find life on other planets.

An international team of scientists led by researchers from Imperial College London examined one of the largest groups of bacteria to understand more about photosynthesis—the process by which plants and other organisms make and store energy from light to produce oxygen.

The bacteria in question, known as cyanobacteria, is one of those organisms that produces its energy via photosynthesis. According to Elmars Krausz, a professor from the Australian National University's (ANU) School of Chemistry and co-author of the Science study, these cyanobacteria could be harnessed by space colonists to produce oxygen and create a biosphere in which humans can live.

"This might sound like science fiction, but space agencies and private companies around the world are actively trying to turn this aspiration into reality in the not-too-distant future," Krausz said in a statement.

"Photosynthesis could theoretically be harnessed with these types of organisms to create air for humans to breathe on Mars. Low-light adapted organisms, such as the cyanobacteria we've been studying, can grow under rocks and potentially survive the harsh conditions on the red planet."

Such is their survival capabilities that certain types of cyanobacteria that are known to grow in places like Antarctica and the Mojave Desert have even been found living on the outside of the International Space Station.

In their study, the scientists found certain types of pigment found in the bacteria, known as chlorophylls, enabled the organisms to adapt to low-light and produce energy.

Mars as seen from orbit. NASA, ESA, and Z. Levay (STScI)

"Chlorophyll adapted to absorb visible light is very important in photosynthesis for most plants, but our research identifies the so-called 'red' chlorophylls as critical components in photosynthesis in low-light conditions," said Jennifer Morton, a PhD student at ANU.

According to Morton, studying these red chlorophylls may help us to find life on other planets, if it exists.

"Searching for the signature fluorescence from these pigments could help identify extra-terrestrial life," she said.