Remotely controlled plants may sustain life on Mars

Researchers from the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts are addressing a fundamental problem faced when planning future manned space missions: how to maintain life whilst keeping down overall costs.

One answer is to align NASA’s goal of solar system exploration with the emerging fields of genomics and nanoscience.

NASA’s Christopher Brown Ph.D. believes that the two disciplines can be drawn together with the development of robotic plants that can be programmed to express or repress inducible genes, or modules of genes, from remote signals.

The task of the robotic plants would be to provide, among other things, the air; water and food needed to sustain human life in space.

Brown proposes the plants be programmed from earth, or from a satellite, to initiate a bioregenerative life support system for an incoming or resident crew as well as initiate the production of pharmaceuticals or nutraceuticals, and generate biomass or produce fibres and plastics for construction.

Current life support technologies are said to be entirely physico-chemical, providing clean air and water. Physico-chemical systems cannot, however, provide food. Brown believes that the generic properties of plants, such as edibility, built in redundant systems and receptiveness to light, would obviate the need for expensive and potentially unreliable re-supply missions.

Any future program of solar system exploration is likely to involve significant periods when humans are not present or are unavailable to tend to the plants. Because the stakes are said to be so high, the integration of remotely controlled and smart nanotechnology to monitor and control the function and metabolism of plants will remain a fundamental area of research.

According to Brown’s proposal, ‘The integration and application of functional genomics and nanotechnology towards a biologically based life support system would bring NASA’s goal of establishing a human presence on Mars closer to reality.’

Brown believes that with the current progress in plant functional genomics remotely controlled plants could be produced within 10 to 40 years.