Martian Soil Detox Could Lead to New Antibiotics to Fight Superbugs

Anti-microbial Resistance could become the main cause of death by 2050 if scientists don't find new antibiotics. Martian soil detox can potentially lead to the engineering of new synthetic antibiotics.
Susan Fourtané
ESA's Mars Express shows an ancient river valley network on Mars/Photo: © ESA/DLR/FU Berlin, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

Superbugs are bacteria that have developed a resistance to antibiotics. Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is one of the major long-term health challenges that humanity is facing at a global scale. The world is approaching the post-antibiotic era with implications in simple surgery and cancer treatments.

It is estimated that 700,000 people die annually of bacteria that are resistant to at least one or several antibiotics. Very few new antibiotics have been introduced to the market during the last decades.

It is estimated that Anti-microbial Resistance (AMR) is going to become the main cause of death by 2050 reaching 10 million annual deaths.     

The causes of antibiotic resistance include: 

  • Physicians and hospitals over-prescribing antibiotics

  • Patients not taking antibiotics as prescribed, or taking antibiotics without professional supervision when they are not necessary

  • Unnecessary use of antibiotics in agriculture

  • Poor infection control in hospitals and clinics 

  • Poor hygiene and sanitation practices 

  • Lack of rapid laboratory tests

Recent research aimed at helping humans live on Mars in the future shows that there is a chance that, in the right conditions, Mars soil might help address this problem leading to the development of new antibiotics.

On-orbit research as well as space technology and space applications can help scientists on Earth improve health on the planet by monitoring the environment, tracking disease, improving diagnostic, as well as working on the development of new medicines and vaccines.  


Engineering living organisms using synthetic biology: Could they fight superbugs? 

By using synthetic biology it is possible to engineer bacteria to solve problems that cannot be tackled by wild bacteria. 

Dennis Claessen, Associate Professor and Teacher of the Year 2014 at the Institute of Biology in Leiden University, in The Netherlands, works in synthetic biology trying to solve this problem; and with rather innovative ideas, Professor Claessen and his students are looking at Mars' soil in search for answers. 

"The soil on Mars has perchlorate chemical compounds in it, which can be toxic for humans," Professor Claessen says. "High doses of perchlorate can inhibit the thyroid gland uptake of iodine and interfere with foetal development," he explains. 

Perchlorate -- a chemical compound containing the perchlorate ion-- can be both a naturally occuring and man-made chemical. It is used in the production of rocket fuel, missiles, fireworks, flares, and other explosives. It is also found in bleach and in some fertilizers. The perchlorate chemicals found on Mars have boosted the chances that microbial life exists on the planet. 

"Our students started building a bacterium that would degrade the perchlorate to chlorine and oxygen, but they needed to know whether the bacterium would behave the same way in the partial gravity of Mars as it would on Earth," says Professor Claessen.  

Random Positioning Machine: Microgravity machine for cell culture experiments

In order to solve the problem of how to reproduce Mars gravity on Earth, Professor Claessen's team of students used a Random Positioning Machine (RPM) which was developed by the Netherlands-based Airbus team for the European Space Agency (ESA).

"When microbes belonging to the Streptomyces family become stressed, they usually start making antibiotics." 

This is the latest instrument that has been developed to experiment in zero or reduced gravity in laboratories on Earth without the need of going into space. The first recorded experiment on living systems using a machine to manipulate gravity was done over 200 years ago, in 1806, using a rotating waterwheel. 

The RPM rotates any enclosed experiment randomly not letting the items encapsulated within it to adjust to a steady gravity direction. This way it is possible to minimize the influence of Earth’s gravity and scientists can simulate what would be experienced in space from the comfort of their own lab.

The original models could successfully simulate zero gravity, typically referred to as microgravity. The newer RPM 2.0 can additionally simulate partial gravity, which is between normal Earth gravity and the weightless environment (1g and 0g).  

According to Professor Claessen, during the experiments they noticed that when bacteria grew in partial gravity they became stressed as they accumulated waste around them and they couldn't get rid of it. "This holds great potential because when microbes belonging to the Streptomyces family become stressed, they usually start making antibiotics," he says. 

Professor Claessen says that seventy percent of all the antibiotics humans use are derived from Streptomyces bacteria and that this type of bacteria can potentially produce even more. "Using the RPM to stress them in new ways may help us to find ones we've never seen before," he says. 


Soil detoxification: Detoxifying soil on Mars and Earth 

In order to investigate soil detoxification on a larger scale, Professor Claessen is building a Dutch consortium.

The team is currently looking for funding to start research into Streptomyces microbes, the ones found in Earth's soil. These microbes play a role in breaking down organic matter.

Then the RPM could also be used to produce new antibiotics. At this point, this would be great news given the fact that antibiotic resistance is a global urgent matter. 

Atacama desert: Mars on Earth 

The Atacama desert in Chile, on the Pacific coast and west of the Andes mountains in South America, is known as the driest non-polar place on the planet. The soil of the Atacama desert has been compared to the surface of planet Mars.

Not only the Atacama desert has been used as a location for film productions with scenes on Mars, such as Space Odyssey: Voyage to the Planets, but ESA has also tested a self-steering rover in the Atacama because of the similarities to martian conditions. 

Like Mars, the Atacama presents no signs of life. In 2003, researchers reported that they duplicated the tests used by the Viking 1 and Viking 2 Mars landers to detect life, finding no signs of life. 

NASA uses the Atacama to test instruments for future Mars missions. The Atacama is also a testing site for the NASA-funded Earth-Mars Cave Detection Program. 

Perchlorates on Mars and Earth 

The Phoenix Mars Lander, a project led by the University of Arizona on behalf of NASA, detected perchlorates on the surface of Mars in 2008 and perchlorates have also been found in the Atacama desert.

Associated nitrate deposits containing organics have led to the speculation that life on Mars is not incompatible with perchlorates. 

Due to the presence of perchlorates and its similitude with Mars, precisely, Professor Claessen and the Dutch consortium could use the soil in the Atacama to investigate soil detoxification

International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM)

Meanwhile, already having access to the RPM to conduct their experiments, the team of Professor Claessen's students entered the  International Genetically Engineered Machine competition presenting a solution to the problem of growing non-toxic plants on Mars.

The iGEM is an independent, non-profit organization for the advancement of synthetic biology, education and competition, and the development of an open community and collaboration.

The teams here focus on the most important research trends to push the boundaries of synthetic biology by tackling common everyday issues that the world is facing, such as bacterial resistance to antibiotics. 

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