Can we really colonize Mars?

Artist's depiction of a colony on Mars
Image Source: Mars-One.com 
Contrary to the scare that comes along with the thought that aliens might be interested in visiting our planet, humans, as a race, are quite enthusiastic when it comes to possibilities of inhabiting other planets in our solar system.  Whether we are eager to do this, in the name of science, or probably to quench our age old traits of conquering newer lands (something that is no longer an option on Earth), is matter of debate. But since, most people agree to this thought of colonizing other planets, we thought we could scientifically discuss, whether this was really possible. 

First and foremost, where do we go? 

Before we can decide what we would really need on this campaign for colonization, we need to first decide, where we need to go. Do, we go towards the Sun or away from it? Or do we just pick up the nearest planet to the Earth and start our preparations? We can simply look at our immediate neighbours first, Venus and Mars. While Venus is approximately 41 million kilometres away, Mars is about 78 million kilometers away from the Earth. So, why did NASA send its rover missions to Mars, when Venus was just half he distance away? 

Well, the answer to this lies, in this simple graph that compares temperatures of the planets in our Solar system
Graph showing average temperatures for the planets in our Solar system
Graph showing average temperatures for the planets in our Solar system
Image Source: www.enchanted learning.com
As you can see, the Earth's average temperature is around the zero degree Centigrade mark, the temperature where we know water freezes. In comparison, Venus, the planet that is closest to us has a temperature around the 450 degrees centigrade, making it completely inhabitable for humans. If we were to set up a colony there, we would have to find a very good mechanism to cool down the planet or at least the colonised area by a massive 400 degrees, something that we are not very good at, at this point in time. 

On the other hand, Mars has a sub-zero temperature range, with some places even registering a positive temperature. Additionally, as a race, we are quite adept has surviving in sub zero temperatures and keeping ourselves warm. Thus, Mars becomes the logical choice, when looking for a planet that we can colonize. It is not only close by, but we also already know a few things that can help us survive there. This is why, NASA and other space agencies have been sending exploratory missions to Mars and not Venus instead. 

What do we need? 

So, now that we know, which planet can be reached, we now need to make a list of things that we will need to get there and require, once we land on Mars. 

Place to Live 

In preparation, we will first need to ship Living Blocks to Mars that will be capable of supporting human existence on the planet. These blocks will maintain regular room temperature and levels of oxygen, Carbon dioxide, nitrogen, etc. within the blocks, just like the atmosphere on Earth. This will allow the first human inhabitants on the planet to live a life, free from space suits, much alike how life is aboard the International Space Station (ISS)

Food to Eat

Needless to say, the Living Block would have to be stacked with food, since from the information we have so far, Mars is incapable of growing potatoes and wheat for us. The ISS is also stacked with food for a crew of 3-5 people but supplies on the ISS are restocked every six months or so. The Living Units on the Mars would need supplies for at least 3-5 years since even a planned mission to the planet requires 7 months of journey time. 

Work to do

After spending billions of dollars to ensure that humans reach the red planet with food supply to last many years, it would be quite stupid to let them sit there and waste their lives, waiting for a pickup back to Earth. Curiosity demands that we do something there, like take a torch light and look out for signs of life. Rovers sent to Mars have already been able to send us good amount of information about what elements exist there, so that natural thing to do would be use this information to make the planet more habitable for us. For example, carry genetically engineered plants from here, that can sustain themselves there.

If these ideas seem a little beyond the horizon for now, the least we could do is carry enough equipment to set up more living units and stock more food so that more humans can be sent there at a latter point, with a mission that extends beyond just survival.

Means of transport

Moving along the surface of Mars should not be very difficult, since Rovers sent earlier to the planet have been able to do so with the power that is drawn using solar panels. However, it is the lift off from Mars that will much more difficult to achieve. Although, the gravity on Mars is only 38% of that on the Earth and the atmosphere is also thinner on the planet, the fuel to lift off has to be first transported from the Earth, along with other supplies and stored carefully, until the time it is required. Since, this looks like a tedious task to achieve, it is likely that humans travelling to such colonies may not return back to Earth in their life time.

Unless, of course, in the immediate future, we do find some kind of fuel on the planet or a Transport Shuttle of some sort is invented that can make the take off and landing much more easier to carry out on both the planets. 

Do we have the technology to achieve this? 

Amongst the things mentioned above, we have the technology to get ourselves on Mars (if not back right away). The Living Blocks are something that we need to develop. The development of the ISS is somewhere mid way between leading normal life on Earth and settling down on Mars. These blocks would require a mechanism to extract water from the frozen ice crystals on the planet and also a way to convert the plenty carbon dioxide on the planet to usable oxygen.

There is the chemist and engineer's way of making a device that takes into account the chemical changes required to convert one form of gas into another or else, there is the biologist's way, of using plants that have been doing this for millions of years and are likely to do the same on another planet as well. Rather, preliminary experiments have showed that this is quite doable and probably, along with Living Blocks, we should also send some seeds and saplings to the Red Planet to start off.
Plants grown in simulated soil environments for Moon, Earth and Mars!
Plants for Mars
Image shows plants grown in simulated soil environments for the Moon, Earth and Mars!
Image source: PLoS One. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0103138.g002

We will also need a few handy robots that can helping with building tasks and perform routine checks on equipment on hars environments on the Red Planet. The robots we have built are quite capable of handling tasks for us (A Wall-E future), so this is also achievable in the coming few years.

However, we will need to raise the temperature of Mars to bring it in line with that on the Earth. The human race is well aware of how to do this, so this should not pose a real problem. It is just it will be required to be done much quicker than usual and may be we will be able to find an economical way to transport trapped pollution to Mars in the years to come.

Like mentioned before, we do not have the technology to bring people back, so initially people heading to Mars will only be carrying a single journey ticket.

How soon can we do this? 

To be honest, people have already preparations to travel to Mars. Although, NASA's manned mission to Mars will probably take place in the early 2030s but private firms like Space X and Mars One have plans of landing humans earlier and perhaps even colonising it before NASA astronauts reach there.

Space X has been a well known name in space industry since they have been contracted to transport supplies to the ISS. Their Dragon capsules and Falcon 9 rockets have be applauded for their abilities and its founder and CEO Elon Musk has revealed that a complete roadmap to Space X's Mars Mission will be revealed before the end of 2015.

Mars One on the other hand, is a non-profit company, looking to set up a colony on Mars. Its Co-founder, Bas Lansdorp has been working since 2011 to ensure that the first crew for their Missions takes off from Earth by 2026. Unlike Space X, Mars One does not really have any rockets or launch engines at their disposal and their mission largely depends on the tie-ups they manage and the external funding they can generate to pay for these services. Interestingly, Mars One has already invited applications from the common public to become astronauts for this one way trip and people have responded in large numbers. The applicants list has already been shortlisted to a 100 names and Mars One has plans of broadcasting the selection process, training program and the actual take off to Mars as an historic event world over. The company aims to raise funds for their program through the distribution of the entire event whilst making space research a part of reality television.

But what ever means, people take to reach the Red Planet, the truth is that the race is on and it is only a matter of time, before humans set foot on Mars!

References: 

Wamelink, G., Frissel, J., Krijnen, W., Verwoert, M., & Goedhart, P. (2014). Can Plants Grow on Mars and the Moon: A Growth Experiment on Mars and Moon Soil Simulants PLoS ONE, 9 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0103138

Find your car in the parking space, with a little help from Science!

Pressing a button on the key unlocks all of th...
Pressing a button on the key unlocks all of the car doors. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
How often do we find ourselves in a situation where we are in the parking space with absolutely no idea about where the car was parked. The keyless entry systems that most cars are equipped with today, do make life a little easier but if you are really stuck in a place that is massively huge and the push button at your disposal is out of the range of your car's receiver.

Well, if you watch this video, you will have a trick up your sleeve, the next time you are caught in a situation like this. The bottle of water you carry can be quite handy.






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Red Crab Marathon for Survival [Video]

Red Crab on Christmas Island, Australia. Taken...
Red Crab on Christmas Island, Australia.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you believed humans have taken great risks when migrating to new places in search of food and water before, you have not seen the lives of many animals that migrate over long distances to ensure that the next generation gets the best environmental conditions to grow and survive and take the species forward.

The migration of the Monarch Butterflies is quite well documented and you will find many videos online for them. But here is another story of the Red Crab that braves heights and ants to make it to the sea!




RotM: Interview with Dr. Marta Llimargas Casanova

Marta Llimargas (Right)  with co-authors for her recent 
paper Annalisa Letizia (Left) and Andreu Casali (centre). 
As we approach International Women's Day, we spoke to our first woman Researcher of the Month (RotM) at Coffee Table Science, Dr. Marta Llimargas Casanova. Dr. Marta is the Principal Researcher at the Institut de Biologia Molecular de Barcelona where her team studies formation of tissues and organs during development. Her recent publication in PLoS Genetics sheds more light on chitin deposition. 

Here's Dr. Marta speaking more about her publication, women in science and working as a scientist. 


CTS: How has your recent publication added to existing knowledge about the chitin deposition? 

Chemical structure of chitin (part of the poly...
Chemical structure of chitin
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
MLC: Chitin is a natural polysaccharide made of UDP-N-acetylglucosamine monomers (a derivative of glucose). It is the second most abundant polymer in nature after cellulose, and from a functional point of view it has activities comparable to those of the protein keratin. Chitin is present in the cell wall of fungi and it is the major component of the exoskeleton of arthropods, providing these animals with structural support and protection against dehydration, infections and predators. 

Previous to our work, it was already known that the synthesis of this polymer depends on an enzyme with chitin synthase activity, the so-called Chitin Synthases, CHS, which polymerise the sugar monomers into linear chitin polymers. Actually, there are hundreds of excellent papers describing the activity, regulation, diversity, phylogeny, structure, and biochemical properties of many different chitin synthases. Nevertheless, in spite of so many studies, the exact molecular mechanism by which CHS synthesize chitin remains obscure.

English: Drosophila sp fly. Pictured in Dar es...
English: Drosophila sp fly.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In our lab, working with the fruitfly Drosophila melanogaster (a widely used genetic model system), we have discovered a novel activity that together with chitin synthases are also required to synthesize chitin. Our results are important because they provide further insight into the mechanisms controlling chitin deposition and the mechanisms that regulate this deposition during development, providing also a starting point to better understand the molecular mechanisms of production of this polymer.

To make the story short, we have identified an activity (encoded by two interchangeable genes in Drosophila but, interestingly, not in all insects) that, when missing, prevents the deposition of chitin. In normal conditions, chitin is found mainly in two different structures in the Drosophila embryo: in the cuticle, and in the tracheal filament. The cuticle (that forms the exoskeleton) is a layer deposited by the end of embryogenesis that covers and protects the epidermis and the tracheal system. The tracheal system is the respiratory organ of the fly and consists of a network of interconnected branches that reach all tissues and connects to the exterior to allow respiration (comparable to our lungs). In addition to the protective cuticle, the tracheal system also contains a chitin filament that is deposited transiently inside the lumen and that was previously shown to regulate the shape and size of tracheal tubes.

In the absence of the newly identified activity (encoded by two genes named Expansion, Exp, and Rebuf, Reb), none of these structures, the chitin filament and the cuticle form. This leads to embryonic defects (in respiration and morphology) which are not compatible with life, and so the embryos do not reach larval stages. Of note, these same type of defects were also reported for embryos mutant for the main CHS in Drosophila encoded by the gene Kkv. But the most striking result we obtained was that when we express together Kkv and Exp or Reb in cells that normally do not produce chitin, such as other embryonic or adult tissues, they can promote the synthesis of chitin in these tissues. This result is very important, because it identifies the minimal genetic program (established by the two activities Kkv and Exp/Reb) responsible for chitin deposition. None of the two activities alone can trigger chitin deposition, indicating that the enzyme polymerising chitin (Kkv) needs to be regulated. By analysing when and where each of these activities are expressed during embryonic development we have been able to understand and correlate the deposition of chitin during normal development. Finally, and very importantly, we have also observed that when this genetic program is unregulated, it leads to unregulated (advanced, ectopic, or increased) deposition of chitin, and this also prevents normal embryonic morphogenesis. This clearly shows that chitin deposition needs to be highly regulated to allow development to progress.

CTS: How is triggering genes to deposit chitin in places it does not usually exist important? What advantages does it have for us? 

MLC: Chitin is found in crustaceans and insects and also in fungi, but not in vertebrates. This makes it an ideal target for the control of insect pests and fungal diseases. Targeting specifically chitin deposition will directly affect insect or fungi survival. Very importantly, pesticides or antifungals designed against chitin deposition are potentially ecologically sensitive because they wouldn't damage the environment and are non-toxic for human health.

But besides this important application of chitin as a target for antifungals and insecticides, chitin and chitosan (its deacetylated form), have emerged as a new class of natural materials with a wide variety of applications. For instance, they have diverse applications in the biomedical field, such as wound and burn treatment (clotting blood), as a carrier for drug delivery, as a hemostatic for orthopedic treatments, in micro surgery, neurosurgery, in tissue engineering, as a treatment of chronic wounds, ulcers and bleeding (chitin powder). They also have industrial uses, as a degradable and non-toxic biomaterial to manufacture objects, in water treatment, in cosmetics and in textile industry. In summary, their versatility in industry and biomedicine combined with their biocompatibility, biodegradability and low-toxicity lead these biopolymers to the top in R&D efforts. Hence, unravelling the mechanism of chitin polymerization is critical to a gain a better understanding and application of these properties.  

CTS: You have mentioned that unregulated chitin deposition has detrimental effects. Could you please elaborate on this? 

MLC: Chitin is synthesized by specific tissues at particular stages of development. We have found that this is achieved through regulated expression ( regulated presence) in time and space of the two activities (Kkv and Exp/Reb) required to produce the polymer. This chitin is absolutely required for normal development. Absence of the chitin filament leads to abnormally shaped tracheal tubes that at the end of embryogenesis cannot be filled with air. Tracheal air filling occurs at the end of the embryonic stages (during embryonic development the embryos just breathe by diffusion of gases in the body) when the late embryo and then the larvae require the sufficient gas exchange to cope with their increased physiological activity. Similarly, the chitin deposited in the cuticle is important to provide structural support when the embryos hatch and to shape the larvae. In the absence of this chitin the embryos are flaccid with elastic cuticles and do not hatch. Thus, chitin is an absolute requirement for viability and proper physiological activity.

What it was not known and we have now shown, is that not only the absence of chitin is deleterious, but also its abnormal deposition. We have observed that it interferes with  normal organ and tissue formation when it is deposited at earlier stages, or in tissues that do not normally deposit it. When we induce early chitin deposition in the tracheal system, this blocks the rearrangement of cells that occur during morphogenesis. It is important to point out that the tracheal system forms a tridimensional tree of branches inside the embryo during embryonic development out of an original bidimensional flat epithelia. The process of tube formation (the so called tubulogenesis, which also occurs during the formation of other branches tubular structures, like lungs, kidneys, mammary glands or vascular system) involves among other events, several cell rearrangements within the organ to give rise to a tubular network. We find that early and excess chitin deposition prevents these cell rearrangements and hence the branches cannot fully extend and mature. Another example is when we force chitin deposition in the salivary glands, a secretory organ. The salivary glands also arise from a patch of cells in the ectoderm that invaginate and end up forming a tubular structure. But in contrast to the trachea, salivary glands do not normally deposit chitin. When chitin in deposited in the salivary glands the invagination and extension of the tube is seriously compromised, and the glands become extremely malformed and bloated. A final example is when we trigger high and early chitin deposition in the wings. While the cells of the wings normally secrete a chitin based cuticle, its abnormal deposition completely collapse wing formation during morphogenesis, and adults eclose from the pupal case with malformed, unextended and rudimentary wings. Altogether, these results clearly show the need to regulate in time and space the deposition of the required quantity of chitin that allows proper morphogenesis.

CTS: How is premature acquisition of mature traits detrimental to the organism?

MLC: Development requires the precise coordination in time and space of different morphogenetic events. And the order of this series of events needs to be respected to generate normal organisms. For instance, let’s think about the vertebrate lung. During its formation the different conducts (e.g. trachea, bronchia, bronchioli) form in a consecutive manner. Only at the end of the ramification the alveoli form. If the alveolar phase anticipates, it may lead to the formation of a definitive lung before the full ramification had occurred, generating lungs without sufficient exchange surface or not reaching the target tissue. Another example could be tissues in which cell differentiation occurs after a process of cell proliferation. If at the stage of proliferation the cells abnormally acquire its definitive final differentiated state, these are not able to proliferate anymore, generating a rudimentary or malformed organ or tissue.
Image credit: Dr. Marta Llimargas

The acquisition of a mature trait usually occurs at the final stage of differentiation of cells, and usually these mature traits constrain the cellular capabilities (in other words, cells become more specialised in their roles but less flexible or potent). In the particular case of chitin that we have analysed, we find that when chitin deposition is anticipated in the trachea the cells become more static, unable to undergo cell rearrangements. It is as if the deposition of such a thick and tough extracellular matrix "freezes" the ability of cells to move, exchange positions, and change their shapes, which is exactly what happens at the end of embryogenesis, when the cells have already formed the structure and need to perform the respiration activity.

CTS:The chitin synthase gene has a complex name (kkv). Is there any story behind its complex naming?

MLC: kkv is the abbreviation of krotzkopf verkehrt, which means something like "snot head, inversed" in german. This mutation was isolated in a genetic screen performed by G Jurgens, E Wieschaus, C Nusslein-Volhard and C Kluding, H in 1984. This work was tremendously important because it represented the basis of our current understanding of the genetic control of embryonic development. One of the mutations isolated in that work was kkv, and the mutation was named with this name by Gerd Jürgens because the late embryos showed head defects and were occasionally inverted inside the eggshell.

CTS: What are your views about women working in science? How has been your experience?  

MLC: Personally, I have never felt that I have been judged differently (either positively or negatively) for being a woman, and I would say that in general this type of discrimination is not very common in the scientific world. But it is absolutely true that at top research jobs there are more men than women. This may be somehow surprising if we consider that, for instance in the biomedical field, there are similar numbers of female and male students. Thus, somehow, at some point, there is a clear drop in the proportion of women “fighting for” and getting top positions. The reasons for this fall out of women from science may be diverse, but I would say that a combination of two of them are the main ones: selection of scientists based on masculine criteria, and the personal choice of many women to prioritise other aspects of their lives (or at least not prioritise the professional career). 

Dr. Peter A Lawerence, who was my supervisor in Cambridge when I did my postdoctoral stay, elaborated on this subject a few years ago in an opinion paper in PLoS. I quite agree with several of the things he says. There he discusses the fact that the tests and criteria to select top scientists or group leaders generally favour masculine traits, like aggression or self-confidence, and disregard more feminine characteristics like being more gentle, reflective and creative. Equally important is the fact that the scientific career is usually very demanding, and requires a lot of effort and probably to give up other aspects of one’s life (like family, other interests). But these are not the only reasons and there are many more issues to be considered. In summary, gender bias also applies in the scientific world, as a reflection of the society, and it is a major issue that deserves deep analysis. It is important to try to understand the reasons, and try to find out the right measures to close the gender gap (as several scientific institutions in Europe and worldwide do).


CTS: On a lighter note, how difficult is it to explain to your family and friends what your day job is like?


MLC: I would say that in general it is rather easy to explain what we do in the lab. In my experience, I find that people are quite interested in the scientific world, and they are very curious in understanding what we do. Many people feel attracted by a job that they consider very creative, inspiring and altruistic. Hence, to explain in plain words and in a more or less superficial manner the "what we do" is not difficult and there is a wide audience interested in listening. Obviously, more detailed explanations about the "how we do it" are more complex, because they require a background that sometimes is very specialised. But what I find more difficult to explain is the "why we do what we do", that is, the reason why we investigate a particular subject. This question is very easy to be answered successfully for those working on applied science disciplines, that apply the knowledge to solve practical problems (e.g. diseases, developing new products). 

But it is not easy for those of us doing basic research, which has no specific direct application as a goal. I have found myself many times trying to explain why we investigate the development of the fruitfly, and having to justify that the knowledge we acquire provides insight into many different mechanisms and phenomena that will be used by others for more "applied" purposes. Basic research has been and still is, to my opinion, the breadbasket of knowledge that feeds human development. However, it is not always easy to explain to the society the benefits of investing money in basic research, and unfortunately, in recent years, the funding agencies are becoming also difficult to convince. 

References

Moussian B, Letizia A, Martínez-Corrales G, Rotstein B, Casali A, & Llimargas M (2015). Deciphering the genetic programme triggering timely and spatially-regulated chitin deposition. PLoS genetics, 11 (1) PMID: 25617778

EDITORIAL (2013). Science for all. Nature, 495 (7439) PMID: 23472264

Lawrence, P. (2006). Men, Women, and Ghosts in Science PLoS Biology, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.0040019

Discovering the Olinguito, in the museum [Video]

An Olinguito
Photo courtesy: www.independent.co.uk 
The Olinguito was one of the Top Ten New Species of 2014 and is a mammal that is found in the misty mountains of Ecuador and Western Columbia. While this carnivorous mammal has been spotted multiple times before and even displayed in the zoos of the United States before, people mistook the creature for a common racoon.  However, olinguitos are tree-living animals and prefer to habitat stretches of mountains that are 5000-9000 feet high. They just have a single mammary gland and bear a single offspring at in a single gestation. 

It actually took an accidental discovery in the museum to get the classification right! Here is the story of the Discovery of Olinguito by Kristofer Helgen and how specimens are maintained and analysed in the museum courtesy of the Shelf Life series from the American Natural History Museum 




A Wall-E Future?

Set in the year 2805, WALL-E sent the world in a wave of "aweee"s as movie goers came out of the theatres overwhelmed with gestures of the cute little bot. While WALL-E (short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter -Earth class) was conceptualized to sort out wastes on planet Earth while its irresponsible future inhabitants cruised around the world, little are we realising that slowly and surely, we are moving towards a future, quite alike the movie, WALL-E. 

It is likely that our readers are thinking on the lines of how we are polluting our Earth and the rampant deforestation that accompanies the "development" of our civilization, but today we would like to talk about automation instead and how we are moving towards a future that includes having robots in our daily lives. 

Smartness is a quality no longer limited to phones and television sets but something that has moved further to devices. As we become used to the Internet of Things as it is developing around us, it is also time that we accept that robots will also become ubiquitous around us in the years to come. Rather, they will become so common that we might hardly notice them.

Take Google Cars for that matter. We are very open to the concept of driverless cars on the roads in a bid to reduce accidents, without realising that it is computer or a robot that will maneuver this vehicle. Yes, it is not the traditional Android bot that have been repeatedly enforced to think that robots are. Rather, this robot will sit inside the hood of your car, with its eyes on the roof and other sensors on the front and back, a navigation system that will let it decide its course and probably a voice modulated digital assistant that will communicate with you. While this seems like a massive accomplishment for artificial intelligence, similar systems (auto pilots) have been managing our aircrafts for decades  now.

Another robot that will soon become common sighting is the TUG from Aethon. Developed specially for hospitals, the TUG robots are designed to handle everything that a helping hand in a hospital would do. From taking medicines to different floors, to dropping off samples in the lab or even delivering food to patients on time the TUG can handle it all. The robots come in different specifications, designed to handle specific tasks but more or less look just the same. The TUG robots even do the dirty work like cleaning out the trash or taking dirty linen to the laundry with equal ease. All you need to do is tell them where to head and leave them free to do their work, absolutely no monitoring required.

All TUGs are controlled through the command stations where you can list the different tasks you want the TUG to do. Once programmed just hit the go button and TUG will be on its way. With sensors that function as its eyes, TUG can gauge if it is about to collide with a human or a non-human and quickly take evasive action. It knows all routes within the hospital and can even call the elevator to travel to another floor. What is more, when low on battery, the TUG finds the nearest charging station to recharge itself before moving ahead. So, you need not bother to find these TUGs lying around somewhere one day. There is no doubt that the University of California San Francisco Medical Center ordered 25 such TUG bots to help them with their day to day activities.

You can watch the TUG in action in the video below and do let us know if you think that we are not moving towards a WALL- E future! 


Aethon TUG Robot: Automating Internal Logictics from Aethon on Vimeo.


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