Forget Sci-Fi—This NREL Biotechnology Could Actually Help Colonize Mars

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December 10, 2021

Forget Sci-Fi—This NREL Biotechnology Could Actually Help Colonize Mars

NREL’s patented cyanobacteria

NREL’s patented cyanobacteria (pictured) are engineered to emit ethylene as a byproduct of routine photosynthetic processes. Photo courtesy of Dennis Schroeder, NREL


If earthlings can use cyanobacteria to make chemicals on planet Earth—how much more might they offer astronauts with access to Mars’ abundant carbon dioxide?

That is a question National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) scientists and partner Nzyme2HC are actively exploring after signing an agreement to explore if astronauts can use NREL’s patented ethylene-emitting cyanobacteria in closed systems to manufacture building materials on Mars.

Leveraging technology previously supported by the U.S. Department of Energy Bioenergy Technologies Office, NREL scientists are pivoting the technology to the potential for Mars exploration. The scientists previously developed technology on how to insert an extra enzyme into a strain of cyanobacteria to enable the organisms to emit ethylene gas during metabolism. This might allow future Martian colonists may be able to take advantage of that ability in closed cyanobacterial farms to turn Mars’ carbon dioxide, sunlight, and water into a stream of ethylene to help establish a colony.

Discover the otherworldly potential of cyanobacteria in the push to settle the red planet on NREL’s website


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