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No. 129: MAY-JUN 2000

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The Extremophilic Terraforming of Mars

If we are to colonize Mars, we must make it more earthlike; and that is what terraforming does. Right now, the Martian atmosphere, surface temperatures, level of ionizing radiation, and noxious soil are inimical to delicate, complex life forms, such as us. But these hostile Martian conditions are easily endured by some bacteria, such as Deinococcus radiodurans. This bacterium, one of the extremophiles, lives in our sewage systems and other unpleasant places. It can survive desiccation, freeze-drying, and high radiation levels.

D. radiodurans can do more than survive on Mars. It can begin to detoxify the soil and prepare the way for other pioneer microorganisms. And even more:

What D. radiodurans can provide is a microscopic (and therefore easily portable) factory -- a kind of terra-forming toolkit -- from which any number of products potentially can be derived. Whether it is engineered to reduce metals, produce drugs for ailing astronauts or simply manufacture the polymers necessary for the production of thread, D. radiodurans, one of the world's oldest bacteria, may provide a means of expanding the limits of human imagination beyond the written sci-fi page.

(Slotnick, Rebecca Sloan; "Extremophilic Terraforming," American Scientist, 88: 124, 2000.)

Comment. Perhaps D. radiodurans is the oldest bacterium on earth. Having arrived eons ago on a bit of cosmic debris. It quickly set up shop on what was then a planet hostile to complex life. Perhaps earth itself has been terraformed!

Nature's plan is all so obvious, extremophiles first terraform planets and then Gaia sustains the conditions appropriate for complex life. But where did it all begin?

From Science Frontiers #129, MAY-JUNE 2000. � 2000 William R. Corliss

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