US scientist Craig Venter aims to make living copies of Martian life
Scientist Craig Venter field-tests his pioneering DNA-decoding technology, which he says could revolutionise the search for extraterrestrial life
McClatchy-Tribune in the Mojave National Preserve, US
The sun is fading, the temperature is dropping and the desert party is just getting started.
They're prying open beer bottles and blasting out rock music.
Motorcycles rest on kickstands beside an ancient lava flow while revellers talk excitedly about alien worlds, teleportation and the creation of life.
On a sun-blasted tract of sand 22 kilometres south of Baker, California, molecular biologist and entrepreneur Craig Venter is field-testing a technology 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 will also beam the information back to earth and allow scientists to reconstruct living copies in a biosafety facility.
"We can recreate 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 the US space agency Nasa's Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley.
Six Ames emissaries 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."
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 "super powers", 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, it refuses to die when deprived of air and water.
Scientists say it's the sort of extremeophile that may be hiding out on other worlds and 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."
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 downloaded by scientists at Venter's for-profit company, Synthetic Genomics.
If it's ever used on Mars, the technology is going to have to be roboticised and shrunk to a fraction of its current volume.
"It needs to be the size of a shoe box," McKay says.
In 2007, Venter successfully transplanted the genome of one species of bacteria into another.
Three years later, he announced 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 told of the feat in the journal Science, Venter said his team had created "synthetic life".
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 next year.