Why microbes and not humans should be the first 'Earthly pioneers' to settle on Mars

Microbes should be considered as assets rather than 'serendipitous accidents' when it comes to colonizing the red planet. Scientists suggest a significant revision in space exploration philosophy

Mars - Image Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech

Mars - Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

When it comes to future colonization of other planets within our own solar system, our eyes have been firmly centered on Mars. And as Earth's population is growing exponentially, it might not be a bad idea either. Inspirational people like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk with their respective companies Blue Origins and SpaceX, as well as NASA, have been slowly preparing for the journey.

While we are mainly focused on the expedition to set foot on the red planet itself, other aspects like making the planet more livable in the long term have been thought out a little less substantially, at least for now. Professor Jose Lopez from the Nova Southeastern University has recently published a paper in collaboration with his colleagues Raquel Peixoto and Alexandre Rosado regarding this subject.

In their paper, professor Jose Lopez and his team take a look closer look at using microbes in the process of space colonization. They postulate that microbes should be considered assets rather than 'serendipitous accidents.' They hypothesize that it is almost impossible to travel to another planet without transferring microbial hitchhikers to its surface. 

The driving force behind the proposed fundamental change in approach stems in part from the robust evidence of microoganisms' various roles in supporting life on Earth. Think of symbioses and ecosystem services like decomposition and nitrogen fixation. The researchers take it as far as to recommend us to dispatch microbes towards Mars even before any humans go there as they should be able to 'prepare' the planet for the arrival of humans and even partially terraform it. 

Leaving for Mars - Image Credit:  Official SpaceX Photos via flickr  - HDR tune by  Universal-Sci

Leaving for Mars - Image Credit: Official SpaceX Photos via flickr - HDR tune by Universal-Sci

Why an absolute no contamination policy is futile

There is an international space microbial policy that requests space explorers to try and avoid 'harmful contamination' when exploring other planets. The idea behind this is policy is that we must try to avoid contaminating Mars before we can actually verify that no extraterrestrial life existed there prior to human contact. 

However, Lopez and his team suggest that we rethink this policy. Their message intends to convince that using the more forward-looking term microbial 'introductions or release' into space would be better applicable than the negative term contamination. In addition, the research team believes that the contemporary planetary protection policy is not compatible with future plans to eventually colonize space. 

As it stands now, in order to comply with the no contamination policy, it is required to sterilize spaceships before sending them to another planet. The researchers emphasize that obsessing about microbes in space is not practical as they are indispensable components of life with a majority of microbes being beneficial and nonpathogenic. On top of that, it is pointed out that it seems redundant, expensive, and futile to aim for complete sterility of every nook and cranny on all spacecraft for every mission. 

Finally, the scientists call attention to the fact that even if it were possible to sterilize a spaceship completely, the human crew would still carry many microbial communities in their bodies. Taking it a step further, you might even look at humans and see them as so-called metaorganisms, composed of the host and its incorporated microbiome. To think that we could send humans to Mars as well as prevent microbial contamination is notably far fetched. 

As stated by Lopez and his team, practical consideration for discarding the strict no-contamination guidelines, at least when it comes to our own solar system, is cost. Obligations to keep every segment of space hardware free of microbial contamination are wasteful and add extra coats of regulation, personnel expertise, and time. Even when putting in all the effort, there is still absolutely no guarantee that no contamination will take place as it is not possible to sterilize crewmembers. It is, therefore, perhaps a better idea to primarily focus on removing known harmful microbes using the ever-increasing developments in DNA, RNA, and protein identification techniques to our advantage. 

The benefits of sending microbes to Mars

As mentioned before, the researchers propose an alternative viewpoint to space science policy. They recommend a focus on microorganisms and would like to see them as the first 'Earthly pioneers' to settle on Mars, mirroring what likely happened on primordial Earth. Lopez and his team think that microbes will ultimately promote terraforming. However, they let no mistake; it will not be effortless by any means as many obstacles will need to be overcome. 

As biologists might tell you, there can be no life on Earth without the ecosystem services of microbes. In fact, the first life forms on Earth (which back then was more like Mars today) were single-cell microorganisms. These microbes conditioned the atmosphere of ancient Earth, adding extra oxygen as well as affecting levels of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and methane. Choosing the right microbe communities to colonize other worlds would have to be done on the basis of systematic research.

Another potential benefit of introducing microbes to Mars is that they could help with improving Martian soil and make it ready to aid with farming. The researchers propose that future colonists should focus on smart farming for maximum effectiveness. The concept of 'smart farming.' Smart farming aims to use advanced interdisciplinary approaches to evaluate and foster soil quality at precise levels in order to improve agricultural production within a field.

Lopez and his team stated that it could be legitimately argued that microbes being released on Mars will constitute an invasive species being introduced into an unexplored and possibly pristine ecosystem. Henceforth they postulate that we should thoroughly debate how we can control releases and protect any present ecosystems from harm as much as possible. As it stands the team does not advocate rushing microbial introductions without thorough research on Earth. 

In conclusion, if humankind is seriously considering settling on another planet like Mars, or on one of the many moons in our solar system, then Lopez and his team assert that people need to recognize, understand and send the most competitive and advantageous colonizers possible: microbes. 

Sources and further reading: Inevitable future: space colonization beyond Earth with microbes first / Planetary protection

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