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Revolutionizing Defense Manufacturing: DARPA’s B-SURE Initiative for Biomanufacturing in Space on Orbital and Lunar Missions

Introduction

As humanity continues its quest for space exploration, the potential for conducting advanced biomanufacturing in space is capturing the attention of scientists and researchers. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has embarked on a groundbreaking initiative known as B-SURE (Biotechnology for the Exploration of Space using Unique Readiness Enabling Technologies). This visionary initiative aims to revolutionize defense manufacturing by harnessing the power of biotechnology and biomanufacturing in the unique environment of space during orbital and lunar missions. In this blog article, we delve into the B-SURE initiative, exploring its potential to reshape the future of space missions and defense manufacturing.

 

The DoD has a role in orbital and lunar missions as defined by the US Space Force (USSF) Space Capstone Publication. In this document, USSF notes the “inherent value of the space domain and the tremendous influence space has on U.S. prosperity and security.”

 

There is a critical DoD need for the continued development and future expansion of orbital manufacturing to enable and ensure supply chain resiliency, sustained technological superiority, and asset security and repair for current and future operations. To meet this unique challenge, DARPA announced in Nov 2021 that it was taking an initial step to explore and de-risk manufacturing capabilities that leverage biological processes in resource-limited environments with its Biomanufacturing: Survival, Utility, and Reliability beyond Earth (B-SURE) program.

 

The B-SURE Initiative: A Marriage of Biotechnology and Space Exploration

The B-SURE initiative, spearheaded by DARPA, envisions the integration of biotechnology into space exploration to enable advanced manufacturing capabilities in extraterrestrial environments. Biomanufacturing, the use of living organisms to produce valuable materials, plays a central role in this pioneering endeavor. By leveraging the unique microgravity environment of space, scientists seek to unlock new possibilities in defense manufacturing, including the production of critical materials, fuels, and pharmaceuticals.

 

Imagine you are going to space. There is a long list of items and supplies you will definitely need, but there is an even longer list of things you might need, depending on how your mission progresses. This includes unforeseen needs like fuel for unexpected maneuvering, replacement parts or tools, and a wide range of other products that could be useful, but may not be utilized. The current paradigm in space is to pack everything you might possibly need, but this approach is complex and logistically burdensome.

 

Imagine instead that you pack only fermentation equipment, feedstocks, and a freezer full of microbes that each convert the feedstock into a different useful molecule, material, or product so you have everything you might need and can produce it on demand. This is the eventual goal of space biomanufacturing; bring the microbes and equipment you need to manufacture a wide range of raw materials or products that become critical during the course of the mission.

 

 

Biomanufacturing offers a novel approach for in-situ manufacturing in far-forward locations, including space. While biomanufacturing has the potential to provide DoD-relevant molecules and materials and alleviate supply chain burdens associated with space operations, realizing this capability requires fundamental, investigational research to inform future applied research efforts. To accomplish this goal, B-SURE will collect data on the microbial utilization of space-based alternative feedstocks, optimization of microbial growth in variable gravities, and mitigation strategies for identified effects of galactic cosmic radiation on microbial growth and bioproduction.

 

“DoD currently has no space-based manufacturing capability. All resources or equipment needed for a given mission are manufactured on Earth and shipped to space,” stated Dr. Anne Cheever, B-SURE program manager. “The B-SURE program is an important first step in addressing fundamental biomanufacturing questions to develop this capability.”

 

B-SURE performers will have the opportunity to engage with U.S. Government and DoD stakeholders, as well as appropriate regulatory authorities. Teams are also expected to collaborate with ethical, legal, societal implications (ELSI) experts.

 

“The B-SURE program is a fundamental study that will explore adapting microbes to space conditions. As a proof of concept, the microbes will produce reporter molecules with the hope that eventually this technology will enable in-space production of molecules relevant to space flight,” added Cheever.

For deeper understanding of Biomanufacturing technology and applications please visit: Advances in Biomanufacturing: From Fundamentals to Future Frontiers

Biomanufacturing in Microgravity: Advantages and Opportunities

Microgravity, experienced during space missions, has been shown to influence biological processes in ways not possible on Earth. Microorganisms, such as bacteria and fungi, behave differently in space, which could enhance their bioproduction capabilities. The absence of sedimentation, buoyancy-driven convection, and fluid shear in microgravity may also lead to the production of higher yields of specific compounds.

  1. Defense Materials and Components: The B-SURE initiative explores the possibility of using biomanufacturing to produce defense materials and components in space. From advanced nanomaterials for protective armor to high-performance alloys for aerospace applications, space-based biomanufacturing could lead to lighter, stronger, and more resilient defense technologies.
  2. Propellant and Biofuel Production: Space missions often rely on conventional rocket propellants, which are resource-intensive to transport from Earth. Biomanufacturing in space could pave the way for on-demand production of biofuels using microorganisms, thereby reducing logistical challenges and making missions more self-sustainable.
  3. Medical Countermeasures: Space missions pose unique health challenges, and the ability to produce pharmaceuticals in space would be a game-changer. B-SURE explores the potential for biomanufacturing to produce vaccines, therapeutics, and medical countermeasures onboard spacecraft, ensuring the safety and well-being of astronauts during extended missions.
  4. Sustainable Life Support Systems: Biomanufacturing in space can also contribute to sustainable life support systems for future lunar and Martian colonies. Using biological systems to recycle waste and produce essential resources could significantly reduce the dependence on Earth for life-sustaining supplies.

 

Challenges and Solutions

While the B-SURE initiative presents exciting opportunities, it also faces significant challenges. Microgravity-induced changes in biological behavior can be unpredictable, necessitating thorough experimentation and optimization. Furthermore, maintaining sterile conditions in space and preventing biological contamination pose critical challenges.

To address these issues, the B-SURE initiative incorporates cutting-edge automation, artificial intelligence, and robotics. Advanced bioreactor systems with intelligent controls will be deployed to facilitate real-time monitoring and precise adjustments. Additionally, stringent containment and contamination control protocols will be established to ensure the safety of both biomanufactured products and the space environment.

 

Program Overview

The physical properties of spaceflight are unique, making it critical that the survival and reliability
of microbial strains in the context of a potential in-space biomanufacturing capability are fully
understood. B-SURE will evaluate how variable gravity and GCR impact biomanufacturing
microbial host strains.

 

Microgravity and GCR are two of the most significant differences between conditions in spaceflight and conditions on Earth, both of which have unpredictable effects on a given microbe and its engineered metabolism. Additionally, the levels of gravity and GCR vary tremendously depending on the location in space, requiring evaluation of microbial strains at multiple relevant gravitational and radiation levels.

 

For example, the International Space Station (ISS) is partially shielded by the Earth’s magnetic field and receives less GCR than a similar hypothetical facility in cislunar orbit. Spaceflight analogs (such as high-altitude balloons or the ISS National Laboratory), microgravity analogs (such as a clinostat or rotating wall vessel ii), and/or radiation analogs (such as the NASA space radiation laboratory at Brookhaven National Lab) are examples of facilities capable of testing and demonstrating microbial host strain capabilities for molecule production in spaceflight-like conditions.

 

The 18-month effort involves three tracks to meet program goals.

  • Track 1 “Alternative Feedstock Utilization” will determine which alternative feedstocks can be consumed by host organisms and at what quantity and purity levels.
  • Track 2 “Variable Gravity” will identify the impact of variable gravity on cellular performance in the context of biomanufacturing parameters and how terrestrial analogs predict on-orbit molecule production.
  • Track 3 “Variable Radiation” will discover the effects of variable radiation on microbial molecule production.

 

To address the key biological questions for each track, proposers must use both Saccharomyces
cerevisiae and Escherichia coli as microbial host organisms, as well as at least one other organism
based on selected track (track and additional host organism selected at the discretion of the
proposer). As a proxy for the biomanufacturing productivity of the organism under non-terrestrial
conditions, each host organism will be modified to produce a simple quantifiable protein or small
molecule reporter such as green fluorescent protein or violacein. B-SURE is focused on generating
foundational data for the future of biomanufacturing beyond Earth. To this end, proposers are encouraged to select commonly used and industrially relevant host organisms; however any host
organisms that achieve relevant program metrics are allowed.

 

Proposals should address foundational biological questions to expand the potential for future
biomanufacturing applications. Biological and predictive modeling questions are designed to
inform the three fundamental areas, and performers will pursue individual tracks to address each
challenge independently.

 

Performers investigating alternative feedstock consumption will define minimal energy, nutrient, and purity requirements, as well as profile the metabolic conversion of these inputs to their cellular usage. Investigation into cellular growth and performance in variable gravity and high radiation environments will help understand the impact of these conditions on the industrially relevant strains S. cerevisiae and E. coli, in addition to other microbes. Finally, the  performers will develop new models for the space economy to determine under what circumstances biomanufacturing would compete with (economically, logistically, etc.) or exceed traditional manufacturing practices on future spaceflight missions.

The utilization of alternative feedstocks (AF), working toward the goal of complete In-Situ
Resource Utilization (ISRU), is a critical advantage that biological systems offer over traditional
chemical or additive manufacturing and will be important for space manufacturing where
resources are at a premium. Resources produced by humans and human activity that are generally considered waste (e.g., CO2, black and grey water, food waste, and biodegradable plastics), and local resources such as sunlight and regolith, could be used by microbial systems to
derive energy for production.

 

Waste streams from the fermentation processes themselves can become important local resources. Recycling of fermentation byproducts (even partially) such as broth for subsequent runs and utilizing spent biomass as a nutrient source would be another important way to reduce waste that is generated locally, as well as reduce the amount of launched resources required for space-based biomanufacturing. B-SURE aims to understand how much and at what purity level a locally available feedstock could be consumed to minimize resupply and maximize supply chain resiliency, even if microbial strains continue to use a percentage of traditional feedstocks in combination with alternative feedstocks. In addition to the above alternative feedstock examples, there may be additional resources that can be explored and justified toward a future goal of total ISRU platforms in space.

The physical properties of spaceflight are unique, making it critical that the survival and reliability
of microbial strains in the context of a potential in-space biomanufacturing capability are fully
understood. B-SURE will evaluate how variable gravity and GCR impact biomanufacturing
microbial host strains. Microgravity and GCR are two of the most significant differences between
conditions in spaceflight and conditions on Earth, both of which have unpredictable effects on a
given microbe and its engineered metabolism. Additionally, the levels of gravity and GCR vary
tremendously depending on the location in space, requiring evaluation of microbial strains at
multiple relevant gravitational and radiation levels. For example, the International Space Station
(ISS) is partially shielded by the Earth’s magnetic field and receives less GCR than a similar
hypothetical facility in cislunar orbit. Spaceflight analogs (such as high-altitude balloons or the
ISS National Laboratory), microgravity analogs (such as a clinostat or rotating wall vesselii),
and/or radiation analogs (such as the NASA space radiation laboratory at Brookhaven National
Lab) are examples of facilities capable of testing and demonstrating microbial host strain
capabilities for molecule production in spaceflight-like conditions.

 

Awards

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has selected three university teams to help tackle a program that seeks to mitigate risks associated with biomanufacturing in space.
Groups of researchers from the University of Florida, University of Texas at Austin and Washington University in St. Louis will work on DARPA’s Biomanufacturing: Survival, Utility and Reliability beyond Earth program. Three university teams will explore and take initial steps to mitigate risks associated with manufacturing capabilities that rely on biological processes in space.
This fundamental research program is designed to explore and mitigate risks associated with the concept of biomanufacturing in space and no industrial biomanufacturing will take place as part of B-SURE. Rather, the microbes being investigated will use test molecules as a proxy for their general bioproductivity potential.

As part of the “Low Gravity Track” team, the University of Florida (UF) performers, led by Dr. Amor Menezes, are tasked with gathering data to provide important insights into how common industrially relevant biomanufacturing microorganisms perform in the low gravity conditions of space. They will evaluate the performance of several well-characterized microorganisms by sending them to the International Space Station on NASA’s next commercial resupply mission via SpaceX, scheduled for launch at 8:30 p.m. EDT Tuesday, March 14. UF team member Rhodium Scientific will act as the mission integrator and provide scientific translation of laboratory protocols for spaceflight operations and flight-proven hardware for the execution of the experimentation on orbit. In addition to Rhodium Scientific, the team also includes subcontractors from NASA’s Ames Research Center, University of Delaware, and University of California Berkeley, and will focus on quantifying growth cost of engineering, efficacy of microgravity simulators for production, and identifying the best candidates for future study.

Heading up the “Variable Radiation Track” team is Dr. Hal Alper from the University of Texas at Austin. Supported by teams from the University of Washington, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Signature Science LLC, this team aims to understand the effects of different radiation levels and species on microbial molecule production, and what methods can be used to mitigate any deleterious effects to ensure high bioproductivity.

The “Alternative Feedstock Track” team, led by Dr. Yinjie Tang at Washington University will work with teams from NASA’s Ames Research Center and North Carolina State University to determine what alternative feedstocks can be consumed by host organisms and at what quantity and purity levels. Additionally, microbial engineering efforts aim to increase the amount of nutrients that the microorganisms can derive from space relevant in-situ resources.

A fourth B-SURE performer is expected to be on contract in early summer 2023. All performers on the program will have the opportunity to engage with U.S. government and Department of Defense stakeholders, as well as appropriate regulatory authorities. Teams are also expected to collaborate with ethical, legal, societal implications (ELSI) experts.

“There is a critical Department of Defense (DoD) need for the continued development and future expansion of orbital manufacturing to enable and ensure supply chain resiliency, sustained technological superiority, and asset security and repair for current and future operations,” stated Dr. Anne Cheever, B-SURE program manager.

 

Collaborative Endeavors for a Promising Future

The success of the B-SURE initiative hinges on close collaborations between government agencies, research institutions, and private space companies. This ambitious endeavor requires the pooling of expertise, resources, and technological innovations from diverse stakeholders.

Conclusion

DARPA’s B-SURE initiative represents a bold step towards transforming defense manufacturing through the integration of biotechnology and space exploration. By harnessing the unique capabilities of biomanufacturing in microgravity environments, we can unlock new frontiers in defense materials, biofuels, medical countermeasures, and sustainable life support systems for future space missions. As the initiative progresses, it holds the promise of not only revolutionizing defense manufacturing but also advancing our understanding of biology and expanding humanity’s reach into the cosmos. The future is bright, and the journey to unlock the full potential of biomanufacturing in space has just begun.

 

References and Resources also include:

https://www.darpa.mil/news-events/2023-03-14a

About Rajesh Uppal

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