Engineering Biology for Space Exploration


We need a plan, and we need it now.

Viriditas is a focused, discussion-based workshop geared towards coalescing a practical plan for a sustainable settlement on Mars. Resulting from its inaugural meeting in 2018, we submitted a Perspective for publication framing the problem. This year, we will back out approaches and designs that can be implemented in the first crewed missions to Mars circa 2050. We see many parallels between a sustainable Mars and sustainable Earth and will bias discussion toward efforts that support the long-term interests of both planets.

The workshop will be a full-day event on November 20th, 2019 at the Hyatt Regency Boston.

Viriditas is a joint effort by the Harvard Systems Biology Department, AIChE, Ginkgo Bioworks. For further information, please see the Organizers and Sponsors sections of the site.

The name Viriditas is inspired from a concept in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy:

All these conditions make survival for living things difficult in the extreme. But life is tough and adaptable, it is the green force viriditas, pushing into the universe.


We strive to maximize information exchange and will prioritize discussion and engagement of all participants. Participants will be sorted into groups based on their expertise and interests. Each group will be mediated by a facilitator. Similar to a hackathon, over the course of the day, the groups will generate a hypothetical project plan to accomplish their goals. Periodic checkpoints will break up the sessions to guide and focus progress. The day will end in a keynote and reception.

The goal of this workshop is to have lively and productive discussions about tractable steps necessary to create life-support systems on Mars. Please be aware that active participation is strongly encouraged. We plan to coalesce the thoughts and conclusions into additional publications that drive future planning and engineering efforts. We hope to strengthen the network of those who seek cross-disciplinary collaborations on the future of space exploration and that Viriditas will nucleate the formation of a more stable community of space-inspired biologists.



Sara Walker

Associate Professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration at ASU

Sara Walker is an astrobiologist and theoretical physicist interested in the origin of life and how to find life on other worlds. While there are many things to be solved, she is most interested in whether or not there are ‘laws of life’ - related to how information structures the physical world - that could universally describe life here on Earth and on other planets. At Arizona State University she is Deputy Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, Associate Director of the ASU-Santa Fe Institute Center for Biosocial Complex Systems and Associate Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. She is also Co-founder of the astrobiology-themed social website, and is a member of the Board of Directors of Blue Marble Space. She is active in public engagement in science, with appearances at the World Science Festival, and on “Through the Wormhole” and NPR’s Science Friday.

Joy Dunn

Head of Manufacturing, Commonwealth Fusion Systems

Joy Dunn is the Head of Manufacturing at Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), an MIT spinout pursuing the fastest, surest way to clean fusion energy. She leads the team building state-of-the-art superconducting magnets for a fusion power plant which will enable a sustainable environment for current and future generations. Prior to CFS, Joy worked at SpaceX for 10 years where she was heavily involved with the manufacturing of the Dragon spacecraft and played an integral role in SpaceX’s achievement of being the first private company to launch a spacecraft in orbit and also dock with the International Space Station. Joy is currently a Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum and was also named to Business Insider’s list of the Most Powerful Female Engineers of 2017. She is actively involved in STEM outreach events for young women and the LGBTQ community, including as a board member of the nonprofit Out For Undergrad. Joy received her B.S. in Aerospace Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


We encourage anyone interested in having an in depth and rigorous discussion about actionable biological solutions to ISRU. Please send a brief description of your interests and expertise. To attend the workshop, please apply before Nov 1st. We will review your application and reply with an invite within three days.

To apply, please fill out the application form.

If you received an invite, please fill out the registration form.

The password is provided in the invitation email.



Shannon Nangle, Ph.D.

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Harvard

Shannon is a postdoctoral fellow in Pam Silver’s lab at Harvard. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Washington in Ning Zheng’s lab and studied the structure biology of circadian clock machinery. Her work at Harvard focuses on the optimization of a device called the bionic leaf. Briefly, the bionic leaf comprises biocompatible water-splitting electrodes that provide hydrogen gas to CO2-reducing bacteria in a single reactor. She manipulates the metabolic pathways through genetic engineering to produce bioplastics, biofuels, feedstocks for heterotrophic microbes, and fertilizers; all with water, CO2, and electricity as the primary inputs. Her prime directive is to use synthetic biology to address the challenges of ISRU to promote a permanent human presence beyond Earth.

Mikhail (Misha) Wolfson, Ph.D.

Manager, Government Business, Ginkgo Bioworks

Misha Wolfson works on the government team at Ginkgo Bioworks. His background is in software engineering and computational biology. He received his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from MIT in 2012, working with Arup Chakraborty on problems at the intersection of atomistic simulation, machine learning, and immunology; he then worked on web-scale healthcare software systems and clinical decision support at athenahealth. Since coming to Ginkgo in 2015, Misha’s efforts have been focused on applying machine learning and software engineering to bioinformatics and experimental data analysis. In 2019, he moved full time to the Government Business Unit, where he works to extend Ginkgo’s problem-solving capabilities to new areas, such as biosecurity, materials, and space travel.




Viriditas would not be possible without the integral support of our sponsors.

AIChE logo

Ginkgo Bioworks logo

Harvard Medical School logo

Harvard Department of Systems Biology logo

Wyss Institute logo