Have you ever thought of starting a garden on Mars? Perchlorate (ClO4-) contamination is a widely spread hazard for the environment and our health on Earth, but poses even a larger challenge when colonizing our neighbouring red planet Mars. The worrying fact is that Martian soil of toxic perchlorate consists for about 0.5 to 1%, which makes everything grown on it toxic as well. It thus needs to be remediated before we can cultivate our own edible crops on Mars. But how on Earth – or Mars – do you manage that?
Thirteen enthusiastic students from Leiden University, forming the Leiden iGEM team, are participating in the world’s biggest synthetic biology competition organized by the Massachusetts Insitute of Technology in the USA. They have chosen to take synthetic biology into space and thereby perchlorate out of the soil on Mars. In this regard, they equip the bacterium Escherichia coli with the tools to convert the toxic perchlorate into innocuous chloride and oxygen – the start of a garden on Mars.
By introducing a set of synthetic codon-optimized genes from Dechloromonas aromatica, the bacterium will start producing two enzymes: the perchlorate reductase complex and chlorite dismutase from this original perchlorate-reducing but slow-growing bacterium. In this way, the system cannot only be much better understood, but also used in faster growing bacteria and therefore optimized for use on a larger scale – such as a bioreactor on Mars. Mars is still an fixer-upper of a planet, as Elon Musk said, but these bacteria from Leiden will definitely play their part in fixing it!
BaseClear provided the team with a method to study these differences very precisely, namely transcriptome sequencing – or shortly RNA-seq – by which they could identify gravity-dependent genetic elements.
The effect of partial gravity on bacteria: RNA-seq
As a part of this brave new research project, the students will study E. coli’s gene expression under Martian gravity (0.38g) in comparison to microgravity (0g) and the gravity of the Earth (1g) using a Random Positioning Machine. BaseClear then provided the team with a method to study these differences very precisely, namely transcriptome sequencing – or shortly RNA-seq – by which they could identify gravity-dependent genetic elements.
Altogether, our system is widely applicable to remove perchlorate from contaminated soils on earth, while also being highly useful for future Mars expeditions. In the end of October, the team will present its project at the Giant Jamboree in Boston (USA), where all teams will come together to show their contributions to the field of synthetic biology. But before they can go there, the team needs your help to fund their research. So collect your seeds, rake and shovel and join their mission to Mars! Adopt a plant in their garden on Mars and support this ambitious team.
Team: iGEM Leiden
For the first year, Leiden University participates with a team of its own in the iGEM competition – with a killer application for synthetic biology: in space! Their team consists of 13 highly enthusiastic and ambitious students with a broad variation of backgrounds: biology, life science & technology, statistics, physics, mathematics, astronomy and science based business, with bachelor as well as master students. If you have any ideas on how to improve their project, or have any questions or remarks – do not hesitate to contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or Twitter! More information on the research, team and specifications of their mission can also be found at their wiki: 2016.igem.org/Team:Leiden