Could detoxing Mars soil lead to new medicines?

Bacterial resistance to antibiotics is one of humankind’s major long-term health challenges. Now research into helping humans live on Mars could help address this looming problem.

Dennis Claessen, associate professor at the Institute of Biology in Leiden University, the Netherlands works in synthetic biology, in which bacteria are engineered to solve problems that cannot be tackled – or are not tackled well – by ‘wild’ bacteria. A team of his students entered the iGEM International Genetically Engineered Machine competition with a solution to the problem of growing non-toxic plants on Mars, but needed ‘Martian’ gravity to test their ideas.

“The soil on Mars has perchlorate chemical compounds in it, which can be toxic for humans,” explains Prof. Claessen. High doses of perchlorate can inhibit the thyroid gland’s uptake of iodine and interfere with foetal development.

“Our students started ‘building’ a bacterium that would degrade the perchlorate to chlorine and oxygen, but they needed to know whether that bacterium would behave the same way in the partial gravity of Mars as it would on Earth.” The challenge was to find a way to reproduce Mars gravity on Earth, and the students solved it using a random positioning  machine (RPM). (…)

As its name suggests, the RPM continually changes its orientation at random, so that items placed within it have no opportunity to adjust to a steady gravity direction. The original design could successfully simulate zero gravity while the newer RPM 2.0 can additionally simulate partial gravity, the stages between normal Earth gravity and the weightless environment… [More at link]

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