The race is on to beam Martian DNA back to Earth

J. Craig Venter, the American biologist who led the first private efforts to sequence the human genome, wants to send what he calls a 'digital biological converter/teleporter' to Mars. He hopes it will find Martian DNA, sequence it and beam the information back to Earth for scientists to recreate the Martian lifeforms in a lab.

"There will be DNA life forms there," Venter said last week at the 2012 Wired Health Conference: Living by Numbers, held in New York. For a video of the talk, click here (he starts talking about his plan at around 10 minutes, 23 seconds).

Venter and two colleagues, Hamilton Smith and Clyde Hutchison, led a team of scientists at the J. Craig Venter Institute to create a synthetic life form back in 2010. They pieced together the genome of the bacterial species Mycoplasma mycoides using DNA fragments, and transplanted the DNA chain into a cell of a similar bacterium — Mycoplams capricolum — that had been stripped of its own genetic material. The resulting bacteria began multiplying and behaving the same as any naturally-occurring Mycoplasma mycoides bacteria.

So, by that example, if Venter gets his Martian DNA sequence, piecing together a Martian DNA chain and creating a synthetic lifeform from it shouldn't be that difficult.

"A lot of people are concerned with sample return and about the Andromeda strain that eats the planet," Venter said in the video, referring to the 1969 Michael Crichton book of the same name.

"Now we can rebuild the Martians in a P4 spacesuit lab instead of having them land in the ocean in a space capsule." he added.

A P4 lab, or Biosafety Level 4 laboratory, is the kind used to study deadly bacteria and viruses that have no vaccines or treatments available. Scientists working in these labs wear 'positive pressure personnel suits', with independent air supplies. If one of these suits were to be punctured or cut, the positive-pressure would ensure that air only flows out of the hole, keeping the scientists from coming into contact with the dangerous agents they work with.

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Venter isn't the only one who's interested in this idea.

"We want to make sure an Ion Torrent goes to Mars," said Jonathan Rothberg, founder of the DNA sequencing company Ion Torrent, according to MIT's Technology Review.

The company's Personal Genome Machine is already being adapted for a trip to Mars by a joint Harvard-MIT, NASA-funded project called The Search for Extra-terrestrial Genomes (SET-G). They are trying to get the 30 kilogram machine down to one-tenth that, to fit on NASA's next rover.

This idea to directly sequence Martian DNA and beam it back to Earth has certain advantages over plans for a 'return sample mission.'

"The reason to take a device all the way to Mars and not bring back the sample is because of contamination. No one would believe you," said Tessi Kanavarioti, according to the Technology Review article. Kanavarioti is a chemist who helped study lunar samples in the 1970s, and worked on some of the earlier hypotheses about Martian biology. According to the Technology Review article, a single Earth germ is capable of ruining any sample brought back.

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NASA already has strong evidence for water on Mars, both in the past and currently trapped in ice at the Martian poles, but its efforts are mostly for finding past-life.

"Many people are reticent to talk about extant life," says Christopher Carr, a research scientist on the MIT team working towards the goal of shrinking the Personal Genome Machine.

Extant life is life that still exists. The hope is that if life does currently exist on Mars, perhaps it can be found a metre or more down in the soil, where it would be protected from the radiation that bathes the Martian surface.

"We are sticking our necks out a little bit," Carr added, "but we want to take that leap."

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