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Published: Tuesday December 3, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday December 3, 2013 MYT 9:00:45 AM

Growing E.T. - in a lab

The stars, like grains of sand: Biologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter (left), and Gerardo Toledo collecting rock material at Mojave National Preserve. Venter wants to try and find life on Mars. He wants to build a device that will sample Martian soil, analyse it for DNA, and then radio the results back to Earth. — MCT Photos

The stars, like grains of sand: Biologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter (left), and Gerardo Toledo collecting rock material at Mojave National Preserve. Venter wants to try and find life on Mars. He wants to build a device that will sample Martian soil, analyse it for DNA, and then radio the results back to Earth. — MCT Photos

In the Mojave desert, a scientist-entrepreneur works on an outrageous idea that may allow scientists to ‘re-create’ Martians.

THE sun is fading, the temperature is dropping and this desert party is just getting started. They’re prying open beer bottles and blasting rock music. Motorcycles rest on kickstands beside an ancient lava flow while revellers talk excitedly about alien worlds, teleportation and the creation of life.

It’s a spectacle that easily could be part of Burning Man, but this gathering is even more mind-blowing than anything you might find at that New Age festival.

On this sun-blasted tract of sand 22km south of Baker, California, molecular biologist and entrepreneur J. Craig Venter is field-testing a technology that he says will revolutionise the search for extraterrestrial life.

Not only does Venter say his invention will detect and decode DNA hiding in otherworldly soil or water samples – proving once and for all that we are not alone in the universe – it also will beam that information back to Earth and allow scientists to reconstruct living copies in a biosafety facility.

“We can re-create the Martians in a P-4 spacesuit lab, if necessary,” the 67-year-old says matter-of-factly as he relaxes with his poodle, Darwin, in a luxury camper.

It may sound outrageous, but Venter’s concept of biological teleportation has captured the attention of scientists at Nasa’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Half a dozen Ames emissaries – experts in astrobiology, geology and planetary and environmental science – are on hand to assist in the field test.

The prospect of building a device that could land on Mars, or one of Saturn’s moons, and analyse samples without having to return to Earth, would save billions of dollars. It would also eliminate the potential risks of bringing home alien pathogens, said Ames Director Simon Pete Worden.

“The next mission to Mars will be in 2020,” Worden said. “That mission may well have this (technology) on it.”

Venter wants to try and find life on Mars. He has managed to get Nasa's attention and started testing a prototype device in the Mojave as space agency officials watch over his research.
Venter has managed to get Nasa’s attention and started testing a prototype device in the Mojave as space agency officials watch over his research.

Stand-in

The unforgiving Mojave Desert, with its shifting sand dunes and rugged fields of basalt, has long played the role of stand-in at Mars exploration rehearsals.

Such was the case when a team from Nasa and the nonprofit J. Craig Venter Institute in San Diego and Rockville, Maryland, trudged through the desert last weekend, flipping over rocks in search of a bacteria with “superpowers”, as Ames planetary scientist Chris McKay put it.

Highly resistant to radiation and extreme temperatures, the cyanobacteria called Chroococcidiopsis is a green crud that covers the bottom of translucent quartz rocks.

Among other attributes, the stuff refuses to die when deprived of air and water.

Scientists believe this is the sort of extremeophile that may be hiding out on other worlds, so they plan to use it in their terrestrial test run.

“We’re in love with this organism,” McKay said. “It’s the closest thing we have to Martians.”

McKay, an ardent proponent of terraforming – the theoretical transformation of planets or moons into life-supporting worlds – said Chroococcidiopsis might one day prove useful in making Mars habitable for humans. If the oxygen-producing organism took root on the Red Planet, it might completely alter the climate and atmosphere in 100,000 years, McKay said.

But on this day, the game plan was to collect samples of the bacteria, prepare them for analysis and then load them into a genetic sequencer to determine the unique order of four repeating nucleotides, or chemical “letters”, in the bacteria’s genome. Once that’s accomplished, the cyanobacteria’s DNA sequence will be uploaded to the cloud and then downloaded by scientists at Venter’s for-profit company, Synthetic Genomics Inc.

In the Mojave, all this work is taking place in a massive trailer and requires a team of scientists. If it’s ever used on Mars, the technology is going to have to be roboticized and shrunk to a fraction of its current volume.

“It needs to be the size of a shoe box,” McKay says.

Stuff gets real

Venter has made his career by turning improbable ideas into reality.

He goaded government scientists into a historic race to decode the human genome, vastly accelerating the process with his technique of whole genome shotgun sequencing. While searching for undiscovered forms of life in the world’s oceans, he analysed seawater for strings of DNA and identified 1,800 new species of aquatic microbes.

Karen Xu, a senior scientist at J. Craig Venter Institute, extracts DNA material from rocks gathered from Mojave National Preserve in the mobile lab.
Karen Xu, a senior scientist at J. Craig Venter Institute, extracts DNA material from rocks gathered from
Mojave in the mobile lab.

In 2007, he successfully transplanted the genome of one species of bacteria into another. Three years later, he announced that he had built a DNA sequence in the lab and “booted it up” within a single cell of bacteria. This cell went on to reproduce a colony of cells that bore the same lab-formulated DNA.

When he published that feat in the journal Science, Venter said his team had created “synthetic life”. Critics condemned him for “playing God”. Others downplayed the achievement, saying he hadn’t actually created life from scratch.

Venter, a devout atheist, dismisses the criticism from both factions.

“We’re creating new life,” Venter said. “Is that creating life? I’m not sure I really care. It’s a semantic argument.”

While the desert field experiment was a test for the unit that hypothetically would travel to Mars to send back data, Venter said a prototype of the receiving technology exists as well. That device, which downloads the DNA sequence and prints out the corresponding nucleic acids, will be available for sale in 2014. This technology will have many uses on Earth, Venter said.

The US Government could use it to identify biological agents in the field – perhaps dropping a sequencing unit from a C-130 aircraft and allowing scientists to identify the organisms in the safety of their lab thousands of miles away. Health agencies could use it during viral epidemics.

Venter says the receiving unit ultimately will be the size of a computer printer. With it, consumers will be able to “download” vaccines and produce insulin, among other medicines.

“We hope to sell a lot of these machines,” he says.

Somewhere out there

Venter’s audacious confidence is matched by his larger-than-life personality.

Venter was awarded a National Medal of Science in 2009 by President Barack Obama. He maintains an expensive collection of automobiles, motorcycles and art, not to mention the 29m laboratory yacht Sorcerer II.

At the Mojave test site, as daylight faded and the scientists wrapped up their day’s work, Venter cranked up music, sent for pizzas in Baker, and kicked off an impromptu party. The main topic of conversation: life elsewhere in the universe.

“They sent Curiosity to the last place on Mars where they would find life,” complained one scientist, cocktail in hand.

“And it has a tiny drill,” lamented another.

Venter said the key to finding evidence of life on Mars would be digging deep into the planet, perhaps as deep as a kilometre or more, where water may exist.

“I would not bet on finding any microbes on or near the surface of Mars,” he said.

But why stop with the Red Planet? A biological transporter should be sent to the Saturnian moons Titan or Enceladus, one expert argued. Enceladus is thought to have liquid water beneath its frozen surface, and it spews ice into space. That ice ultimately becomes part of Saturn’s rings.

“I could think of a lot more interesting places to go than Mars,” Venter said.

Data from the Kepler space telescope suggest that every fifth star in our galaxy has a planet that might hold liquid water – a key ingredient for life.

That means billions of planets in the Milky Way have the potential to be inhabited by living organisms, scientists say. In the face of such odds, Venter said, he’s astounded that some people dismiss the idea of life beyond Earth. Venter shook his head. “And people think I have a big ego.” – Los Angeles Times/ McClatchy-Tribune Information Services


Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Science & Technology, Science, extraterrestrial life, Mars, Mojave Desert, Martians

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