Bacteria May Allow Humans to Breathe on Mars

Eric Sentell

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Depiction of a person in a spacesuit walking on MarsNicolas Lobos

Elon Musk popularized the idea of colonizing Mars, but hardcore fans of space exploration know how many hurdles stand between humans and a Martian colony.

The thin atmosphere of Mars doesn't block UV radiation. Our buildings would need to be built of thick lead to block the radiation and keep the colonists from getting cancer immediately.

How would we grow food? Find or create water? Oh yeah, we would need to breathe, too.

Large lead domes containing artificial atmosphere, water condensation and recycling, and crops come to mind.

If you've read The Martian by Andy Weir or watched the movie starring Matt Damon, then you have some idea of the formidable challenges facing those who live on Mars long-term.

But a recent experiment suggests that a unique cyanobacteria could allow humans to breath in the Martian atmosphere.

Cyanobacteria breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen. They live in some of the most inhospitable, extreme environments on earth, giving hope that they could survive on Mars.

Astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux demonstrated that cyanobacteria can grow in Mars-like soil and water. They can consume the carbon and nitrogen in a Martian atmosphere while producing oxygen.

The study suggests that we could send massive amounts of cyanobacteria in some type of water-based growing medium to Mars. The bacteria could create a breathable atmosphere on Mars, given enough time.

We'd still need the lead buildings and vehicles to avoid radiation, but having a breathable atmosphere could reduce the technological and logistical hurdles to establishing the first human colony on Mars.

Or should I say, an oxygen-rich atmosphere on Mars could produce the first "Martians."

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