UF Researchers Preparing To Send Life To Mars

Published: December 22 2003


GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With a fleet of space probes on their way to the Red Planet, fans of Mars exploration are bound to be on the edges of their seats this holiday season.

While the rest of the world waits to see whether one European Beagle 2 probe makes a successful Christmas-morning touchdown on Mars – followed by the American Mars Spirit and Mars Opportunity probes on Jan. 3 and Jan. 24 — researchers at the University of Florida are planning for future missions that could send life to Earth’s nearest planetary neighbor.

UF researchers are working on greenhouses that could allow plants to be grown on the Martian surface. If a manned base is ever established on Mars, such greenhouses could be vital in providing oxygen, water and food for the astronauts who live there. And in the shorter term, plants could be sent on an unmanned space probe to test the properties of Martian soil.

“Wherever humans go, they’re going to have to take their plants with them,” said Rob Ferl, a professor of molecular biology at UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “In the case of Mars, it’s probably the plants that will arrive first.”

Ferl is director of UF’s NASA-affiliated center for Space Agriculture and Biotechnology Research and Education, a set of laboratories and programs dedicated to finding ways to get plants to survive the rigors of spaceflight. Also known by the acronym SABRE, the center is jointly funded by UF and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and has facilities at UF in Gainesville and at the Kennedy Space Center.

Ferl and other researchers already have put plenty of plants into space, sending various experiments into orbit on the space shuttle. But they also have their eyes on Mars, where a small, first-generation greenhouse could touch down as early as 2011.

If all goes according to plan, researchers would send seeds from the Arabidopsis plant – an alpine weed commonly used in botanical and genetic research – to the Red Planet in a toaster-sized, automated greenhouse aboard a Mars lander. After touchdown on the Martian surface, the lander would scoop up a sample of material from the planet’s surface and place it in the greenhouse, allowing the seeds to take root in Martian “earth.”

The experiment could tell scientists a lot about the composition of the Martian surface. Each of the seeds could be genetically altered to contain a “reporter gene” that causes a plant to emit a jellyfish-like glow in response to certain environmental cues, depending upon the gene used. By growing an array of such plants, researchers can test the Martian soil for a variety of chemicals, toxins and nutrients.

The Mars greenhouse project is competing with several other projects for a slot on a future mission such as the Mars Scout II lander, scheduled to launch in 2011. The researchers say they don’t yet know when NASA will make the final decision on Mars Scout’s payload, but in the meantime, they’re laboring to perfect the many aspects involved in sending plants to the Red Planet.

“There’s some good science here, and I think we’ve got as good a shot as any of the other projects, but the fundamental difference is that we propose to intentionally send biology experiments in advance of humans,” he said.

If the greenhouse does make it onto the lander, the Arabidopsis seeds would be the first known Earth organisms to intentionally travel to Mars. But the researchers at SABRE are betting those plants won’t be the last. SABRE researchers are already taking a hard look at what it would take to build much larger structures to house crops of plants on Mars or Earth’s moon – structures that would come in handy if humans build a manned base on either celestial body.

It’s difficult and expensive to build large structures that can hold in air at pressures normally found on Earth’s surface. So a large Martian or lunar greenhouse, the researchers say, would contain very thin air – and would be tended by gardeners in pressure suits.

“It would be a structure that you would access through an airlock, filled with plants that can handle low air pressure,” said Anna-Lisa Paul, a faculty research scientist at UF and a leader of SABRE’s plant adaptations project. “If we can select a group of plants that can grow well in that environment, we can get around the engineering problems associated with building something airtight at higher pressure.”

Paul, Ferl and other researchers are currently working on projects that test the reaction of Arabidopsis and other plants to low-pressure environments. By manipulating the genetic makeup of certain plants, they may be able to produce plant varieties tailored to the space-greenhouse environment.

For SABRE researchers, the ultimate goal is to produce greenhouses that could sustain a permanent human presence on Mars. Ferl says that’s more feasible than people might think.

“Under the right conditions it only takes a few square meters of growing area to provide enough food to support a single person,” he said. “There are still plenty of technical obstacles to overcome, but this is something we can and will do.”


Tim Lockette
Rob Ferl, robferl@ufl.edu, 352-392-1928 ext. 301
Anna-Lisa Paul, alp@ifas.ufl.edu, 352-222-6971