DARPA thinks it has figured out a plan to create organisms capable of transforming Mars into a planet that can support human life. The plan to terraform Mars centers on the idea that, by heating up the Martian atmosphere over time, humans could eventually populate the Red Planet with plants and bacteria, the first step toward colonization.

It's a plan that comes after Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of the rocket company SpaceX and of Tesla Motors, started work on a line of rockets with the ultimate goal of ferrying Earthlings to Mars. The science-fiction-inspired plan would enable some humans to escape climate change and a host of other self-inflicted problems, though getting there is anything but easy. 

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research arm of the U.S. military, said this week it's investigating ways to make the barren surface of Mars more Earthlike. The first step, DARPA said, is to genetically engineer plant life. This comes after NASA discovered evidence that water used to exist on Mars, and great minds like Stephen Hawking and Musk have advocated civilizing the Red Planet as a solution to Earth's growing problems.

“For the first time, we have the technological toolkit to transform not just hostile places here on Earth, but to go into space not just to visit, but to stay,” Alicia Jackson, deputy director of the new DARPA Biological Technologies Office, told Motherboard's Jason Koebler. She said DARPA has a lab where scientists are figuring out how to manipulate all kinds organisms for life outside Earth's atmosphere, rather than just E. coli and yeast.

“There are anywhere from 30 million to 30 billion organisms [species] on the Earth. We use two right now for engineering biology,” she said. “I want to use any organism that has properties I want – I want to quickly map it and quickly engineer it. If you look at genome annotation software today, it's not built to quickly find engineerable systems.”

The announcement coincides with growing interest around Mars. Musk was best known as the entrepreneurial founder of PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla Motors until he announced a plan to colonize Mars, and built a rocket company to do it. There's also “The Martian,” a coming movie starring Matt Damon based on a book of the same name about an astronaut who becomes stranded alone on the Red Planet.