Grow­ing E.T. – in a lab

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

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - SCIENCE - By MONTE MORIN

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.”

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 for­profit 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.

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 piz- zas 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

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

Karen Xu, a se­nior sci­en­tist at J. craig Venter In­sti­tute, ex­tracts dNa ma­te­rial from rocks gath­ered from mo­jave in the mo­bile lab.

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.

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