Home > News > Life on Mars with Pete Worden
July 2nd, 2009
Life on Mars with Pete Worden
Pete Worden, Director of the NASA Ames Research Center and an Advisor to the Space and Physical Sciences Track of Singularity University, "We have already done a lot of work on autonomous robots, which is the first step. Many of the Mars robots we've sent there have JPL on the outside and NASA Ames on the inside, since a lot of the software has been developed right here."
"Next, we'll want to build self-replicating robots, and that's why nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and other technologies being worked on at Singularity University are so interesting. When you start looking at self-replicating robots, a biologist would tell you "well, we already know how to do that. Those are called living cells. Microbes." in particular. So one of the obvious questions is: Can we begin to take existing microbes and engineer them to do things? And then, at some point, can you actually create synthetic life that can be engineered to extract the materials you need and construct environments?"
"We have a research group here at NASA Ames that is looking at "extremophiles," life forms able to operate under highly extreme conditions, such as close to the boiling point of water, or in highly acidic conditions. These conditions may or may not represent exactly what you'd find on Mars, but we've been able to extract these self-replicating proteins and are beginning to figure out how you can replicate them to manipulate metals to construct substrates, and maybe even grow an electronic component."
h+: Are you talking about creating "synthetic life" that will duplicate what's going on with biology?
PW: Yes. Eventually. But at first, we're just using what we've already found in nature. In fact, there was an article the other day about using viruses to create batteries, and that you can modify the genome of a virus to construct battery leads (+, -), to create a kind of "nanobattery" using the viruses.
So rather than using the current manufacturing process, where somebody melts metal and pours it into molds and machines those parts together into an electrical component, in the future, we'll use microbes and proteins to "grow" them. In a cell, a particular genetic coding manufactures a particular kind of protein that it links to build, say, a cell wall. Well, supposing we modify that so rather than building a cell wall, it builds a substrate for an electronic component. It might be a simple modification to say, "OK, build this in a flat area." Then you have another one that comes in and says "OK, every few microns we have an electronic lead."
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