DARPA terraforming kit could help us colonise Mars

25 Jun 2015

America’s advanced military research division is known for creating some highly-advanced technology, but the news that has come out revealing it is developing a kit that could change an entire ecosystem of a planet to be liveable for humans has raised eyebrows.

The process of terraforming – by using a scientific process to change the entire ecosystem of a planet artificially – has been a staple of science fiction for decades, with novels like Dune discussing the concept in-depth.

However, a DARPA biotech conference this week appeared to show that the research organisation is working hard to turn it into reality for the eventual colonisation of space by human beings.

According to Motherboard, the biotech is being developed by DARPA’s new Biological Technologies Office and, speaking at this recent conference, its deputy director Alicia Jackson said her and her team are working on synbio projects on an enormous scale encompassing multiple organisms.

“There are anywhere from 30m to 30bn organisms on this Earth. We use two right now for engineering biology,” Jackson said during her address.

“I want to use any organism that has properties I want — I want to quickly map it and quickly engineer it. If you look at genome annotation software today, it’s not built to quickly find engineer-able systems [and genes]. It’s built to look for an esoteric and interesting thing I can publish an academic paper on.”

Earth as a test-bed

To help them sift through potentially 30bn organisms, the organisation has developed software called DTA GView, which will allow the newly-developed division of DARPA to use synbio to one day plant a figurative seed on another planet, like Mars.

“For the first time, we have the technological toolkit to transform not just hostile places here on Earth, but to go into space not just to visit, but to stay,” Jackson said of the potential for a DARPA terraforming kit.

Of course, this might seem implausible given that we are still struggling to maintain a healthy ecosystem here on Earth, but Jackson said that, effectively, Earth could be the testing ground for these new technologies given the damage we have caused.

“After a manmade or natural disaster, we can think about recovering the environment. These are the tools that, for the first time, are allowing us to go after that problem,” she said.

Imagined scenes of Martian terraforming illustration via Rudolf Getel/Flickr

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic