Science is all the rage in the film industry these days, with films like Interstellar proving to be massive hits both critically and in the box office. Consequently, The Martian is hoping to capitalize on that success. This science fiction adventure is based on a best-selling book written by Andy Weir and features Matt Damon as Mark Watney, a botanist turned astronaut who finds himself stranded on Mars after an intense dust storm forces his crew to evacuate the planet. The film follows his quest to survive alone on a barren wasteland and his attempts to contact Earth and seek rescue.
Credit: 20th Century Fox
While scientifically feasible and chock full of technical jargon, The Martian is a fictional story by all accounts. After all, humans can’t be expected to grow potatoes inside a tiny habitat for long term survival, as Mark Watney does in the film. But is life on Mars a reachable short term goal? At least one team of researchers thinks so, and they believe they have unearthed the key.Astrobiologist Cyprien Verseux and his team at NASA’s Ames Research Center have discovered a way to use cyanobacteria in order to sustain a long-term human presence on Mars, which was previously thought to be unrealistic due to the amount of resources that would have to be sent.
The idea of cyanobacteria in outer space research is not new. Humans have already been using microbes to search for life on Mars, as illustrated in the video below:
Credit: Open University
Cyanobacteria not only have the ability to survive and grow in Mars simulated conditions, as determined in a study by Karen Olsson-Francis, but they can also fix carbon from carbon dioxide (CO2) and create useful nitrate from dinitrogen (N2), which Mars has plenty of in its atmosphere. While we can’t actually survive simply off of eating cyanobacteria due to their lack of vitamin C and overabundance of vitamin A, they can be used to feed microorganisms, which can then be utilized to convert biomass into potentially fertile soil. Aquaculture is also a possibility, as crustaceans and shellfish are already feeding off of cyanobacteria as a main food source.
Furthermore, Verseux also explored the prospect of using cyanobacteria to produce oxygen, finding them to be even more efficient producers than fully grown trees. Cyanobacteria were even able to produce components of biofuel that could be used to power vehicles and equipment as illustrated in a study by Daniel Ducat; however, further advances must be made for either of these applications to come to fruition.
Often times we watch these ambitious science fiction movies thinking that they’re simply the pipe dream of an idealistic filmmaker. But just as screenwriters are dreaming up new frontiers to impress and amaze audiences, scientists are working diligently in the background to make those frontiers a reality.
To infinity and beyond!Tim Cheung