Scientists have managed to grow cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, in artificially created Mars-like climate.

“Here we show that cyanobacteria can use gases available in the Martian atmosphere, at a low total pressure, as their source of carbon and nitrogen,” said Cyprien Verseux, an astrobiologist. The set-up had Mars-like dust and water. While a very tiny progress, it can pave way for future planning for long-term sustainable missions. These organisms are prokaryotes — simple unicelled organisms, capable of producing oxygen like other plants.

Cyanobacteria are quite dominant in their habitat, even to the point of killing other organisms with toxins. Yet, they are crucial for life on Earth. It is believed the 2.4 billion years ago, “cyanobacteria boom” aided to floodthe atmosphere with oxygen, making subsequent life possible. With this property in mind, the scientists now wonder if cyanobacteria can be utilised to create oxygen on an oxygen-less planet like Mars (or other contained space missions).

If taken there, it could also help fix the carbon dioxide (currently 95%) in Martian atmosphere by converting it to organic compounds and fix the nitrogen (3%) into nutrients.

But the problem is that this was done in a lab-controlled environment and Mars’ atmospheric pressure is at 1% of Earth.The team then decided on a bioreactor called Atmos at 10% Earth’s atmospheric pressure. It reverses the CO2 and Nitrogen values, and  has water—which can be created by meting ice (available on Mars even though there is no liquid water). The system can be pressure and temperature controlled.

Then, they successfully grew plenty of cyanobacteria in this system. To test the success, they used these cyanobacteria to grow Escherichia coli— as a test to check if Martian cyanobacteria would actually function. As it turns out, they were fully functional!

The results of this study can found in Frontiers in Microbiology.