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Students colonise Mars with E. coli bacteria

Using E. coli bacteria to convert a toxic compound in the soil on Mars into oxygen to make life on the planet possible. A team of thirteen Leiden students are taking part in the annual iGEM competition with an entry based on this idea. iGEM is an international competition for students where they use genetic manipulation to resolve societal problems.

The iGEM competition is an annual worldwide student contest in the field of synthetic biology; hundreds of teams take part. After months of preparation, the Leiden University students will present their project at the Giant Jamboree in Boston (United States) in October. 

Colonising Mars

It’s just a matter of time before Mars is colonised, but before that can happen there are some problems that first need to be resolved, problems that the students are well aware of.  The prime problem is that there has to be a sustainable and self-maintaining atmosphere that can support human life. The students have come up with an idea for creating such an atmosphere and have developed the idea into a workable plan.

Genetically manipulating bacteria

Perchlorate is widely present  in the soil of Mars and is highly toxic to humans. It disrupts the working of the thyroid gland that produces hormones needed for digestion. To be able to use the soil on Mars, the perchlorate first has to be removed.  ‘We decided to genetically manipulate the bacteria so that we could remove this toxic molecule and convert it into something useful, like oxygen,’ commented biology student Valentijn Broeken from the Leiden iGEM team.

E. coli bacteria

The team aims to introduce Dechloromonas agitata, a bacterium that can convert perchlorate, into the E. coli bacteria. E. coli has been widely studied and thanks to all the available knowledge, the team can also add other functions. Broeken: ‘One interesting possibility is, for example, to make E. coli more resistant to the severe conditions in space.’

Project launch

The team will present the project on Tuesday 26 April during the This Week’s Discoveries lecture at Leiden’s Faculty of Science.

Follow the team

The participants will present their project at the Giant Jamboree in Boston in October. Until then you can follow the team’s progress via Facebook and Twitter.

Team members

iGEM Leiden team 2016
  • Charlotte van de Velde, Biology (Leiden)
  • David van Driel, Physics (Leiden)
  • Frans Rodenburg, Biology and Statistics (Leiden)
  • Guus de Wit, Maths and Astronomy (Leiden)
  • Koen Hokke, Biology and Science Based Business (Leiden)
  • Lisanne van Oosterhoud, Biology (Leiden)
  • Lisa Verbeij, Biology (Leiden)
  • Lucie Delfos, Life Science & Technology (Leiden)
  • Max Snijders, Physics (Leiden)
  • Sjoerd Seekles, Biology (Leiden)
  • Valentijn Broeken, Biology (Leiden)
  • Vincent de Bakker, Biology and Statistics (Leiden)
  • Wouter Liefting, Nanobiology (Delft and Rotterdam)

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