Bringing life on Mars closer to reality

Edmonton high school students win big with sustainable ideas for managing extraterrestrial colonization on Mars

Katie Willis - 9 December 2016

UrbanTundra is tackling an inevitable problem for the not-so-distant future-oxygen production on Mars.

The concept is simple-use bacteria to make breathable air. More specifically, use genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to convert a poisonous component of Martian soil into oxygen on Mars.

In summer 2016, UrbanTundra successfully did just that, bringing the world one step closer to sustainable living on the Red Planet.

Their innovative idea was a hit at the renowned International Genetically-Engineered Machines (iGEM) Jamboree in Boston, winning three categories-best presentation, best poster, and best wiki. Sponsored by the Faculty of Engineering, the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry, and the Faculty of Science, UrbanTundra and their advisors represented the first Edmonton team made up of high school students to compete since iGEM's inception in 2005.

"The experience of iGEM is like taking a drink from a fire hose." -Mike Ellison

And best of all? UrbanTundra is made up of more than 20 Edmonton high school and first-year university students whose innovative thinking and inspiring experience there will help to fuel the future of Alberta and beyond.

Fuelling the future

"iGEM is about encouraging international cooperation to solve today's issues through the advancement of synthetic biology," says Farynna Facundo, a first-year undergraduate student studying immunology and infection with the Faculty of Science. "It was quite fulfilling knowing that, as high school students, we opened the door of limitless possibilities presented at iGEM."

Under the supervision of Professor Mike Ellison in the Department of Biochemistry UrbanTundra joined more than 3000 students from around the world at the annual competition in Boston.

Student teams are evaluated on the originality and execution of their research projects as well as their ability to communicate complicated ideas effectively, adherence to ethical and legal principles, and the relevance of their work to real-world problems.

But for Ellison and Urban Tundra, the real value lies in the experience itself.

"The experience of iGEM is like taking a drink from a fire hose," says Ellison. "There is so much to learn and master-learning to think big but with the discipline and patience to make the vision real, understanding that mistakes are key to success, learning to work productively as a team, and brushing shoulders with thousands of like-minded students from around the world who believe that science is not only fun but essential to human survival."

"Attending the iGEM Jamboree was the first time I ever took part in something of such magnitude," says Ethan Agena, a first year undergraduate student with the Faculty of Engineering and UrbanTundra team member. "Not only were we able to share our research with distinguished scientists, our team had the chance to connect with students and experts from all across the globe."

For Agena and Facundo, attending iGEM brought to light their own love for research and innovation. They hope to join UrbanTundra at iGEM 2017-and perhaps even pilot life on Mars in the years to come.