Blue-Green Algae Can Help Astronauts Survive on Mars

A new bioreactor enabled scientists to grow cyanobacteria under Mars-like conditions.
Derya Ozdemir
Atmos, the new bioreactorC. Verseux/ZARM

With the deadlines for the first human mission on Mars approaching, the scientists are running experiments to get the red planet as hospitable as possible for human settlement. A new experiment, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, by researchers from the University of Bremen, Germany has shown for the first time that Anabaena cyanobacteria, aka blue-green algae, can be successfully grown in Martian atmospheric conditions.

Blue-Green Algae Can Help Astronauts Survive on Mars
Source: C. Verseux/ZARM

Astronauts on Mars will need oxygen, water, food, and other consumables so this is a significant development since it makes it much easier to develop sustainable biological life support systems.  

Surviving on Mars

To give some background information, it is believed that a cyanobacteria boom that took place 2.4 billion years ago was largely responsible for Earth's breathable atmosphere. The presence of cyanobacteria gave the atmosphere its oxygen. For this reason, scientists were already considering if and how we could harness cyanobacteria's ability to make oxygen in order to live on Mars and, possibly, on other planets.

However, Mars' atmospheric pressure always presented itself as a setback. In this experiment, the researchers developed a bioreactor called Atmos. It has an atmospheric pressure of around 10 percent of that of Earth and uses only the ingredients that can be found on Mars. 

The bioreactor also had water, which can be collected from Mars' frozen ice that is abundant in certain places. Moreover, it had a Martian regolith simulant, which the researchers prepared by mixing minerals that can be found on Mars.

The system which had nine glass-and-steel vessels was carefully controlled and monitored at all times.

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"Here we show that cyanobacteria can use gases available in the Martian atmosphere, at a low total pressure, as their source of carbon and nitrogen," said astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux.

Blue-Green Algae Can Help Astronauts Survive on Mars
Source: C. Verseux/ZARM

"Under these conditions, cyanobacteria kept their ability to grow in water containing only Mars-like dust and could still be used for feeding other microbes. This could help make long-term missions to Mars sustainable."

The team now wants to work on developing a bioreactor system that may make life on Mars possible one day.

"Our bioreactor, Atmos, is not the cultivation system we would use on Mars: it is meant to test, on Earth, the conditions we would provide there," Verseux said. "But our results will help guide the design of a Martian cultivation system... We want to go from this proof-of-concept to a system that can be used on Mars efficiently."

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