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Two ships planned to establish first human colony of 250 persons to Mars are transported by unknown phenomenon into distant planet that is barely habitable link. Left without a choice to return to Earth they must establish new home there.

The Super Earth has:

  • Radius of twice the size of Earth
  • Magnetosphere
  • Surface gravity of 1.6g
  • One satellite similar to Mars
  • In the habitable zone of Orange dwarf, around 80% of Sun's mass
  • Axial tilt of 90 degrees, which causes extreme temperature variations
  • 2/3 surface of oceans & dozen of continents
  • Atmosphere with similar composition to Earth but larger surface pressure

There's only simple life forms living on the planet (algae, fungi, bacteria...) that are most likely inedible for the humans. Humans would have to rely on aquaponics until they could produce plants that could live on the planet.

How useful would be near future genetic engineers for creating edible plants that would survive on the Super Earth, considering colony resources will be limited?

Edit - Backstory

The two Marsbound ships were launched from the Lunar base and each ship carries 1000 tons of cargo which was considered useful for establishment of the permanent colony. Humans have already landed on Mars, and there is one small research station with few humans living on Mars.

The phenomenon moved the ships in the orbit of the Super Earth, they could land there, on the Mars like satellite or stay in orbit if they prefer. As soon as they land their ships are useful only as shelter or building materials. The colonists will have to work with whatever cargo they have in their ships, beside whatever they could mine, fabricate, grow or produce.

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    $\begingroup$ You failed to mention in the backstory is what sorts of materials and tools do the colonists have aboard? Are any of the colonists genetic engineers (not just technicians)? Is there a DNA library they can work with? Just showing up on a random planet with a hold of MRE's isn't going to end well for them. $\endgroup$ – Thucydides Oct 21 '16 at 1:18
  • $\begingroup$ Most major crops on earth have GMO variants with better yields, hardiness, etc. That is done by 'genetic engineering' although the process isn't really super futuristic. It basically just means sequencing the DNA of many plants trying to figure out which genes are responsible for things you like, then copying those genes into plants that do other things you like. Which really isn't that futuristic at all, its been done since the 80s and commercialized since the 90s. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Oct 21 '16 at 14:15
  • $\begingroup$ @Root Could you explain the technology on board the ships? While genetic engineering would help, you could include context in the question as to why two ships headed to Mars have engineering capability $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Oct 21 '16 at 20:41
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Genetic Engineering Would be Nice, But it Has Complications

While genetic engineering would help plants or humans adapt to the environment you describe, it may not be possible to engineer organisms under these conditions:

  • A Marsbound ship does not need GE technology on board. We can predict the soil and atmospheric conditions on Mars, so we have already made a list of plants to grow on Mars and how to do so effectively. Your people are prepared for what they "know" what will happen, not for this anomaly.
  • If the ship has the technology to engineer plants, which it does not need, your scientists will not have the genes required to make the changes wanted. To make a frost-resistant plant, for example, you need genes that cause resistance to frost. Your scientists likely won't carry a library of genes to splice.
  • Engineering people in space will not work. Microgravity conditions affect the human body over time, so trying to engineer and birth modified humans will result in babies developed for low gravity. These humans will not be able to survive in the 1.6g on the planet's surface.

Basically, the short answer to your question is yes, of course GE would help, but it could not be done easily with what your crew has.

There are Plausible Ways to Grow Crops Without GE

Let's consider what your ships have on board to grow on Mars. We have grown the following crops here on Earth with Mars-analogous soil:

  • Tomatos
  • Rye
  • Peas
  • Leeks
  • Spinach
  • Quinoa
  • Others in separate studies

This means these are some of the plants likely to be on board your ships.

Nutrients

Your planet has usable water, but there is no way of knowing if the native soil is hospitable. There are several ways your colonists could work around this:

  • Grow a couple Earth plants. On the small chance the soil is habitable, great! But as many commenters have said, this is simply not likely.
  • Burning native flora to alter soil composition. While this may not guarantee success, it will release what nutrients native species do contain, giving you another option to test with. This method is sort of a Pandora's box, as you could release either toxins or nutrients. Probably best to test on a small scale. If it works, which is possible, great! But it might not.
  • If all of the above fails, human waste can be used as fertilizer. Up until now, the colonists have been eating, so they must be producing waste. This method may not be appetizing, or sanitary, but if the situation is life-or-death, it will fertilize crops to a reasonable degree. Additionally, if your crew brought any antibiotics aboard with them, these could be used in the soil to sterilize or reduce the problems caused by the Earth pathogens.

Climate

Luckily, your colonists were headed to Mars. This is a huge plus for climate controlled habitats on this planet. Mars has extreme storms, and extreme cold, so our solution for the colonization of Mars is to farm indoors, and to water plants using melted native ice. This could apply to your planet with ease.

If your ships contain the weather, temperature-resistant materials or structures we would bring to Mars, your colonists can plonk them down onto this new world and survive in them. No extra climate challenges imposed.

Challenges of Native Flora

If you are lucky, and the soil on this planet is drastically different from our own, the native plants will have different nutritional needs. This means competition is not likely; plants will stick to areas with the nutrients they need to use.

If the soil on this planet is similar enough to our own, and plants try to inhabit the same places, removal should not be a problem. This is analogous to a farmer weeding a crop on Earth; while you could argue that making land hospitable means your plants have to compete to use it, invaders can be removed manually faster than they invade.

Challenges of Native Microorganisms

This is up for debate. While kingledion is correct that microbial toxins could damage humans and plants, there is no evidence of compatibility between these organisms' toxins and Earth chemistries. Elements such as iron and sodium, for example, will not harm humans or Earth-endemic plants, but they may be the main toxin of choice to kill species endemic to this world. The likelyhood of whatever is used to disable creatures on this world being effective against organisms from Earth is slim; there are only so many things that can harm us.

Edited to match information provided in the comments. Previous answer was based on being optimistic when given probability; now based on fact and reason.

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  • $\begingroup$ Question is about transport via 'unknown phenomenon'. You're assuming a ship with a cargo hold. $\endgroup$ – John Feltz Oct 20 '16 at 22:23
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnFeltz If humans are going to Mars ideally they will have a cargo hold (the asker specifies Marsbound ships being moved, not just the humans) $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Oct 20 '16 at 22:26
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for not being more specific, phenomenon transported the ships that the colonists were in. @Zxyrra this answer is more optimistic then I've expected $\endgroup$ – Root Oct 20 '16 at 23:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Root My answer is based on things that are plausible, or things that could occur, but the entirety of my answer being true to your situation is unlikely. It's more reasonable than developing or modifying organisms with little or no gene-editing tech on board the ships, however. $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Oct 20 '16 at 23:31
  • $\begingroup$ As @AndreiROM says in the comments on his post, you are being a bit optimistic. Chemical composition of the soil is unknown, native bacteria don't need to have DNA if they create mircobial toxins to defend themselves against competitors, insolation would be non-standard due to axial tilt (plants' growing rates are strongly affected by photoperiod). All these things might required heavily modified crops to thrive, and the faster they can be bred by expert agronomists, the better off the colonists are. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Oct 21 '16 at 14:11
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Incredibly useful.

We are genetically modifying plants to be hardier and easier to grow even on Earth, let alone on some rock in the depths of space.

In fact, I'm not sure how you were planning to terraform without genetic engineering capabilities. You've already mentioned that there's bacteria native to this place, which might mean big trouble to your unwilling colonists.

A bacterial infection could wipe out whole crops, and the Black Plague was also a bacterial based disease (not viral, which is the only reason I'm able to write this post right now).

In short, those people will not only need to adapt plants and animals to survive there, but possibly also modify their own genetics.

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  • $\begingroup$ See my answer, I've disproved a lot of what you have said $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Oct 20 '16 at 22:11
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    $\begingroup$ @zxyrra - all I see are a bunch of assumptions which are not grounded in reality. Agriculture is tricky business, and crops are incredibly vulnerable to insects, diseases, the weather, as well as soil composition, etc. You're telling us that everything will simply grow with absolutely no evidence to support it. Just because something survives out there doesn't mean that you (or your plants/animals) will. Being out-competed by local weeds is a real threat. Telling us that "they probably evolved with separate mineral needs" is wishful thinking of the highest order. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Oct 20 '16 at 22:14
  • $\begingroup$ Please evidence the idea that alien pathogens could affect Earth organisms $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Oct 20 '16 at 22:19
  • $\begingroup$ No insects are present, diseases don't work like that (worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/10301/…) (worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/19880/…). If weather affected plants that much it would harm humans, which means there's no point in colonizing. Saying competition would make agriculture impossible is like saying we can't farm on Earth because there are native plants that want to grow: not true and with no real basis $\endgroup$ – Zxyrra Oct 20 '16 at 22:25
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    $\begingroup$ @zxyrra - Let's agree to disagree. I think you're being hopelessly optimistic. $\endgroup$ – AndreiROM Oct 20 '16 at 22:29
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Not so useful

Today's tools are actually not so bad, so we do not have to wait for possible future to be able to model the situation.

Main problem is the knowledge what to do, which modification needed, what should be encoded. Problem to determine which set of genes will give us what we need. Level where it starts is designing live, not by testing what we have in different combination to see what will work.

Make needed sequence, we can it for pretty long time now. Recently (year+ ago) I saw news about solution which actually allows to insert sequence in any predetermined(by matching sequence we define) place. We are pretty enough sophisticated at manipulating with genes almost today(or maybe today, do not track that).

But knowing for sure what this or another gene is doing, or will do in this gene set - is a big problem for us. People working on that, but we far from perfection.
And in this hypothetical situation, they should not lease some genes but create them for this particular environment.

Equipment needed to operate with genes is not heavy, not bulky (kinda, not include all stuff for chemical production) - so it is not a problem for 1000t.
But if we can use computers to figure out which combination to use (this is more future part) - it may need lot of energy and computing power which may be not expected to have in that situation, and it definitely will take time to calculate and time to test.

Faster, easier and simpler solutions - hydroponics. I mean not adapt plants to environment, but create needed environment for them, specially as this environment very similar to what humans from those ships will need. If they are not able to create those environment for plants, they probably can't create for them self.

If they can't eat those algae, fungi, bacteria because they are so much incompatible - I bet those algae, fungi, bacteria burn in same way as earth algae, fungi, bacteria will do - at least they have potential to solve problem with energy pretty fast.

Although, if this live is so much incompatible with our, there should be no problem to grow plants. Chemistry for hydroponics is pretty simple, so soil can be just sand, add few boxes and hoses and ready.

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Very useful but they need to be much better than they are today.

They major potential advantage of genetical engeneering is that the spacecraft of colonists just can put the genetic code of many useful species on some durable medium to recreate them on the target planet. They don't need to have lots of living plants and animals on board.

But: Today's genetic engeneers are not yet ready for that. They are more like hackers on the code of nature.

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I don't know about anything else, but you would need genetic engineers to modify the humans that land there. Radius twice the size of earth would mean a mass tens of times bigger then Earths (I am to lazy to calculate now), and a gravitational acceleration significantly bigger than Earths. Also, the atmosphere would be very thick, people could not breathe that air. Actually I think that at this mass, the planet would be to heavy to be considered a rocky planet, and it would be a gas giant (a little on at that). As such, the humans could not survive there. But if it would not be a gas giant, if they would first go to the moon, set up there, build up a larger colony and then they would genetically alter themselves they could go on the planet next. So for this genetic manipulation you would need genetic engineers.

And there is another problem. Normally you would send a ship with a lot of resources first if you go a short distance like to Mars, then a colony ship with only what is needed for traveling safely. This because you can wait to see that the first ship got there safe, the load was not damaged and the people have the equipment. If it fails you just send another ship with equipment. That way you don't risk the lives of the people with some extra heavy ship in one round. This is what happens with the ISS now, we don't send extra heavy rockets with all that the astronauts would need for the entire period with them, there is a stash there and it is constantly replenished by unmanned missions (which are safer in term of potential human loss). This makes your scenario more improbable, as the ship would not carry enough equipment.

You would send such a complete ship only if it goes a long distance (to another system).

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  • $\begingroup$ I would prefer it if you were not too lazy to calculate. If you can't take the time to put a good answer together, than maybe you should not post at all? By the way, I'm pretty sure most of your conjectures in the first paragraph are wrong. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 8 '17 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion well it is not very easy to calculate, especially as we do not know the density of that planet. The moon has a much lower density than Earth, something like 3,3 g/cm3, Mars has something that goes nearer to 4g/cm3, and Earth has something like 5,5g/cm3. Basically the bigger the object, the grater the density of its rocky core (gas giants can have lower density, but that is only because of their gas part, not the rock part). But the density is not really straight forward increasing with the radius, it depends on the materials available while the planet was created. $\endgroup$ – Andrei Ioan Danaila Dec 8 '17 at 16:25
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion anyway, the formula involves cubing the radius, so if you assume same density you get 8 times the mass. Mars is roughly half the radius of Earth, and Earth is around 10 times as massive. So it is fair to assume that the planet we are talking about woudl have at least 10 times the mass. The density is important because mass and radius gives you gravitational acceleration. $\endgroup$ – Andrei Ioan Danaila Dec 8 '17 at 16:46
  • $\begingroup$ @kingledion but of course, it matters what the core is made of. Iron has a normal density of around 7,8 g/cm3, but wolfram for example has a density of almost 20g/cm3. If you have a planet with density near 7 or 8 (which would imply a high density core) you can get a very significant difference of mass between that planet and Earth. $\endgroup$ – Andrei Ioan Danaila Dec 8 '17 at 16:57
  • $\begingroup$ This site is for questions and answers, not discussion. Don't try to convince me in comments. If you have all this data, put it into your answer in a neatly formatted way! The best way to get your point across to other users is to write up a detailed answer. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 8 '17 at 16:59

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