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Scientists think a form of bacteria could help make Mars hospitable to humans

From how we’re going to get there to what we’re going to eat once we arrive, there are plenty of angles to consider when it comes to potentially colonizing Mars. Perhaps the biggest one of all, however, is how exactly are we going to breathe there? After all, oxygen tanks transported from Earth may be a viable solution when you’re talking about a few astronauts on a short trip, but it’s not exactly a long-term solution.

An international team of researchers may have just prompted a major breakthrough in this department — and it involves a type of bacteria most commonly found in water. This cyanobacteria is able to use photosynthesis to generate oxygen from carbon dioxide using far less sunlight than is commonly required. This is because it replaces the normal photosynthetic machinery with a form that uses near-infrared light.

“This was highly unexpected because it means that it is possible for the demanding chemistry of water oxidation to be done with less energy,” Bill Rutherford, professor of biochemistry of solar energy at Imperial College London, told Digital Trends. “A wide range of cyanobacteria are capable of doing this whenever they get shaded from visible light but remain exposed to near-infrared light.”

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One of the other fortuitous aspects of the project is that this species of bacteria, containing the set of genes of interest, can survive in a very wide range of circumstances — including hot and cold dry deserts, hot springs, in rock, in irradiated areas, and more. As a result, it could potentially be a good candidate for growing on the rugged landscape of Mars.

“We are [now] working on figuring out how evolution has allowed this new system to get over the problem of doing water splitting with less energy,” Rutherford said. “This work will provide ideas for the design features of future engineering projects for long-wavelength crops, as well as a judgment on the feasibility of such projects. Perhaps more importantly, these studies will also provide a new angle on understanding normal photosynthesis, which is universally present, which provides all of our food — in fact, it provides all the energy to the biosphere and which maintains the atmosphere.”

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Science.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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