The Mars Space Laboratory (MSL), otherwise known as Curiosity – is a large car-sized rover, which today successfully landed on mars. To have landed was a monumental task and an amazing achievement. The picture above is the second one we received from the craft, showing its shadow on Mars – confirming its successful landing. Now the rover is ready to begin its long mission to find out a huge number of things about Mars, including looking for signs of life.
You can easily find any number of articles across the internet about the various things Curiosity is exploring and hopes to find. But I thought I would quickly touch on some of the less direct impacts curiosity might have on the field of synthetic biology. The real breakthrough would be the discovery of conditions suitable for life on Mars. If Curiosity can find these then it might lead the way for future robots to directly find life.
Such a discovery, in addition to its huge social and scientific impact, could lead the way to huge new advances in Synthetic Biology. If life on Mars evolved separately to life on Earth then its nature might give insight into the different forms that life (and complex structures in general) can take – inspiring new approaches to organismal design. This might also give us new insight into the origins of life and ways this origin might be replicated in future.
On the other hand, if we find life which is very similar to ours, using DNA and proteins – we can assume it is either related to us or has strongly converged onto DNA as the “best method” of storing information in living things. In the latter case we will have a new appreciation for the huge importance of DNA for life. In the former case, we will be able to look at the exact relations martian life has with life on earth – seeing which elements are most conserved. In either of these cases we would see the potential of discovering new “martian” genes, which may be extremely valuable in applying to our engineering problems. Particularly we might even see the use of specific martian genes for adapting earth life to live on Mars (if we ever decide to inhabit the planet).