A wild idea: microbes for exploring exoplanets

A wild idea: microbes for exploring exoplanets

They are small, lightweight, and adaptable, and can reproduce themselves at a pace that man-made machines will never be able to replicate.

So, although probes and rovers have so far been at the forefront of exploration of our solar system, Church believes they will have to give way as we move further into space. Astral travel belongs to microbes.

A professor with wild ideas

George Church presented his vision in a new way Scientific materialThis is not the first time he has caused a stir with unexpected projects – such as using genetic technology to recreate mammoths.

Church, 69, is known for his engineering approach to genetic engineering and is one of the driving forces behind the development of the pioneering genetic technology CRISPR.

Through the vision of the bioprobe, Church combines his experience in genetic engineering with his lifelong interest in space travel. And although it may seem like he’s thinking a little bigger this time, his idea is actually to think as small as possible.

The church was inspired by another project, Starshot hack, which was launched in 2016 by physicist Stephen Hawking and others. The project aims to send a thousand small probes called StarChips towards the nearest exoplanets by 2050.

The StarChip probes will weigh only about one gram and will be launched using so-called solar sails powered by powerful lasers here on Earth. Researchers hope that the sensors will be able to reach about twenty percent of the speed of light.

The target is the nearest star, Proxima Centauri, located in the Alpha Centauri system. Astronomers have discovered two exoplanets around the star, one of which, Proxima Centauri b, is roughly the size of Earth.

Since Proxima Centauri is 4.2 light-years away, the probe is scheduled to arrive in about 21 years. By comparison, it would take a normal space probe like Voyager 1, which has just left the solar system, more than 70,000 years to travel the same distance.

Its success depends primarily on the success of the researchers who developed Breakthrough Starshot in developing ultralight electronics. Each StarChip, as the sensors are called, should be smaller than a credit card and contain processors, cameras, power supplies and radio transmitters that together weigh less than a gram.

Church believes that sensors could be made significantly lighter using microbes instead of electronics.

Biology trumps technology

Low weight offers many benefits. First, the laser cannons that fire the tentacles don’t need to be as powerful, and solar sails can be much smaller. This makes launching each probe much cheaper.

One electron probe, weighing one gram, requires a solar sail of about ten square metres. The same sail could launch a capsule containing a thousand billion bacteria, and each individual cell is essentially a probe in itself.

According to Church, by reducing the number of microbes in each capsule and making it lighter, we could launch an additional billion probes in the same amount as a single Breakthrough Starshot mission — and reach many more exoplanets.

But there is another crucial advantage. While the StarChip probes only have a moment to observe the exoplanet as it speeds past, the bioprobe will be able to slow down and land precisely because it is so light.

The idea is to use a solar sail as an umbrella and take advantage of the back pressure created by light coming from the exoplanet’s star, Proxima Centauri. In this way, the probe will lose enough speed to land gently on the planet’s surface, so as not to destroy the microbial contents.

“A probe that reaches Earth is much more valuable than one that flies over a long distance and in a very short time,” Church tells Science magazine.

Once the microbes land on Proxima Centauri b, their first task is to survive in the alien environment and reproduce.

Here comes the role of genetic engineering. Church believes it is possible to provide microbes with genes that give them a good chance of surviving the long journey in space and thriving in the conditions found on the exoplanet.

In the article, he provides a number of examples of bacteria, fungi, and algae that can provide the necessary genes.

The specially developed microbes must be able to withstand everything from large doses of cosmic radiation and extreme temperatures to extremely dry environments.

Microbes must also be able to cope with less sunlight and perhaps less access to the elements that underpin life on Earth.

To reproduce, most microorganisms need at least ten different elements, but Church believes this number can be reduced by subjecting the microbes to artificial evolution in the laboratory, where they are deprived one by one.

Flashes of light reveal the discoveries

In short, microscopic astronauts must be prepared for anything, because conditions on the exoplanet are unknown. These are exactly the conditions they were sent to investigate.

Therefore, it must contain sensors in the form of receptors that record environmental factors such as temperature, pressure and pH.

Finally, microbes must of course be able to send messages about their discoveries to scientists on Earth. According to Church, the simplest solution is to use what is called bioluminescence, that is, light generated by biochemical processes.

In the sea, for example, large groups of algae create so-called moiré via bioluminescence.

Likewise, microbes on the exoplanet could collectively send out optical signals containing information about what their receptors detect. If two types of microbes are equipped with different receptors, they can be engineered to transmit at different light frequencies.

In 2021 the rain American scientists believe that it will actually be possible for us to detect light from the surface of an exoplanet.

The researchers imagined that Proxima Centauri emits as much artificial light as it does from Earth. The results showed that if the light was focused into a narrow frequency band, the James Webb Telescope would be able to detect it.

So Church believes we will be able to detect light signals from microbes on the exoplanet. This, of course, assumes that it spread over large areas, but it is possible that it did.

If conditions are ideal and the microbes encounter no enemies or competitors, Church calculates, they can reproduce so quickly that they form a single layer over an entire surface in 124 hours — less than a week.

Whether the idea is realistic or pure science fiction may soon become clear. Church believes that it is already technically possible to begin the first experiments that could be carried out in our solar system, for example on an asteroid.

“The time frame for short-term testing may only be a few years. After that, it will take another ten years before we can send microbes to the nearest stars and let them call home.”

If George Church’s vision comes true, we won’t be the first Earthlings to travel to the stars. That honor will go to microorganisms, which are much better genetically equipped to do the job.

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Dalila Awolowo

Dalila Awolowo

"Explorer. Unapologetic entrepreneur. Alcohol fanatic. Certified writer. Wannabe tv evangelist. Twitter fanatic. Student. Web scholar. Travel buff."

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