Self-Growing Blocks for Human Martian Habitats Need Only Bacteria and Fungi to Work

As we’re looking to expand our reach into the solar systems, we humans seem to be considering all options available to us that are capable of sustaining that expansion. Including using cyanobacteria and fungi as some sort of building engineers for structures to be erected on Mars.
Biomineralization-Enabled Self-Growing Building Blocks for Habitat Outfitting on Mars 8 photos
Photo: NASA/Congrui Jin
Biomineralization-Enabled Self-Growing Building Blocks for Habitat Outfitting on MarsMars habitat conceptMars habitat conceptMars habitat conceptMars habitat conceptMars habitat conceptMars habitat concept
Chances are a crewed mission to the Red Planet will take place during our lifetime. It will probably not lead to human habitats in the proper sense being built there anytime soon, but such structures are something NASA and others are considering, nonetheless.

Shipping building materials and equipment to Mars is literally impossible to achieve with some degree of effectiveness, so several alternate means are presently being considered. The most appealing seems to be that of using inflatable habitats that can be shipped in packaged form and expand to the desired shape and size right on location.

But even these need some kind of other structure to support them, and those generally can’t be inflatable, so they’ll have to be shipped to Mars in expensive missions as well. But what if there was another way?

Congrui Jin, a researcher at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, thinks there is an alternate solution to the physical structures needed for the deployment of inflatable habitats, and they come in the form of products of certain cyanobacteria and fungi.

Congrui Jin calls the idea Biomineralization-Enabled Self-Growing Building Blocks for Habitat Outfitting on Mars, and it was recognized by NASA through one of 14 grants awarded this January as part of the Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. It basically calls for the replacement of “prefabricated outfitting elements” with building blocks that can be realized right there on Mars, using the available materials and two types of tiny lifeforms brought from Earth.

The cyanobacteria could be used to capture carbon dioxide from the planet’s atmosphere and turn it into carbonate ions. It could also generate oxygen and organic compounds that would support the second life form involved in the process, filamentous fungi. The fungi are there to bind calcium ions onto fungal cell walls and help with calcium carbonate deposition.

But how does that help with building structures on Mars? Well, it’s quite simple, really. While the bacteria and fungi do their thing, something called synthetic biology toolkits can be used to build a synthetic lichen system. This in turn produces biominerals and biopolymers that effectively glue the Martian regolith into building blocks. These blocks can then be assembled to form various structures, including floors, walls, partitions, and even furniture.

Such ideas have been brought forward before, but Congrui Jin’s solution involves for the first time filamentous fungi as biomineral producers, and that means large amounts of minerals can be produced in a relatively short period of time. Then, none of the solutions proposed so far is fully autonomous, whereas this one is.

As with all NIAC ideas, this one too is in its early stages, but research on it will continue. Plans are to make the technique available for use here on Earth as well, either for military or civilian construction needs. The mitigation of the effects of natural disasters is also on the list, and the technique also has an interesting side effect: because it uses the capture of carbon dioxide, it could help our fight to stop climate change.
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Editor's note: Gallery shows Mars habitat concept by Foster + Partners.

About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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