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Space Synthetic Biology: Pioneering Technology for Space Exploration and Deep Space Manned Missions

Introduction

The future of space exploration is an exciting frontier, with plans for humans to journey further into the cosmos than ever before. NASA’s Artemis program, in collaboration with international space agencies, envisions an orbiting lunar space station (Gateway) to support lunar landings by 2024, followed by the establishment of a permanent lunar base, paving the way for crewed missions to Mars after 2039. Meanwhile, China has outlined a similar program with lunar and Martian missions planned for the 2030s.

The Cost Challenge

One of the primary hurdles facing manned space missions is the exorbitant cost. It’s estimated that for every unit mass of payload launched into space, an additional 99 units of mass are needed to support astronauts with essentials such as fuel, oxygen, food, and medicine. Relying solely on resupply missions from Earth is unsustainable in the long run, especially for deep space missions where resupply becomes increasingly challenging.

The Solution: In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU)

To extend the duration of remote missions and reduce dependence on Earth, space exploration must focus on becoming self-sufficient. This can be achieved through in situ resource utilization (ISRU), a strategy that relies on utilizing resources available at the mission site. ISRU aims to provide astronauts with basic needs such as food, materials, renewable energy, shelter, and medicine by harnessing local resources.

Enter Space Synthetic Biology

Synthetic biology is the application of science, technology, and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the design, manufacture, and/or modification of genetic materials in living organisms. It envisions the redesign of natural biological systems for greater efficiency, as well as the creation of new organisms as well as molecules with desired bio-attributes.

Space Synthetic Biology has emerged as a transformative field, combining biology, genetics, engineering, and space science to create genetically engineered organisms designed for space missions. These “bioengineered astronauts” hold the promise of making deep space missions not only feasible but sustainable.

Here’s how:

Life Support Systems: Bioengineered organisms play a pivotal role in the development of bio-regenerative life support systems. These systems are designed to efficiently recycle waste products generated during space missions into essential resources, particularly oxygen and water. By leveraging the metabolic capabilities of genetically modified microorganisms, astronauts can have a sustainable source of life-sustaining elements, reducing reliance on Earth for resupply missions. These systems not only enhance self-sufficiency but also contribute to the long-term viability of deep space exploration.

Food Production: Space presents formidable challenges for food production due to limited resources and harsh environmental conditions. However, synthetic biology offers a solution through the genetic modification of crops and microorganisms. By engineering these organisms to thrive in space’s unique conditions, including microgravity and radiation exposure, we can cultivate nutrient-rich food. This innovative approach lessens the burden of transporting massive quantities of provisions from Earth and ensures that astronauts have access to fresh, locally grown food during extended missions.

Biological Shielding: Space is fraught with cosmic rays and radiation that pose significant risks to astronauts’ health. Bioengineered organisms can serve as a form of biological shielding, providing protection against harmful radiation. Through genetic modifications, these organisms can enhance their resistance to cosmic rays, thereby safeguarding astronauts on their journeys into deep space. This biological defense mechanism represents a crucial advancement in ensuring crew safety during extended missions beyond Earth’s protective atmosphere.

Resource Utilization: Resource scarcity is a recurring challenge in space exploration, especially on celestial bodies like Mars. To address this, synthetic biology offers a solution through the utilization of microbes. Engineered microorganisms can be deployed to extract and process available resources, such as minerals and gases, from the planetary environment. These microorganisms can then convert these raw materials into vital supplies like fuel, oxygen, and even building materials. By harnessing local resources, astronauts can reduce their reliance on Earth and increase self-sufficiency, enabling sustainable exploration and colonization of other worlds.

In summary, synthetic biology, with its capacity for genetic engineering and bio-manipulation, revolutionizes various aspects of deep space exploration. From sustaining life through bio-regenerative systems to shielding against cosmic radiation and harnessing local resources, bioengineered organisms are at the forefront of ensuring the success and sustainability of future space missions. These innovations not only reduce the burden of resupply missions but also pave the way for humanity to become a multi-planetary species, venturing into the cosmos with greater self-reliance and resilience.

 

Key Applications of Space Synthetic Biology

Researchers are looking at four target areas: fuel generation, food production, biopolymer synthesis, and pharmaceutical manufacture. They showed that for a 916 day manned mission to Mars, the use of microbial biomanufacturing capabilities could reduce the mass of fuel manufacturing by 56-percent, the mass of food-shipments by 38-percent, and the shipped mass to 3D-print a habitat for six by a whopping 85-percent. In addition, microbes could also completely replenish expired or irradiated stocks of pharmaceuticals, which would provide independence from unmanned re-supply spacecraft that take up to 210 days to arrive.

Researchers are exploring four key areas in space synthetic biology:

The imperative of self-sustaining food production is pivotal in ensuring the viability of space exploration. Currently, the cost of ferrying provisions to the International Space Station (ISS) is exorbitant, ranging from USD$20,000 to USD$40,000 per kilogram. Each crew member aboard the ISS consumes approximately 1.8 kilograms of food daily, including packaging. Refilling supplies from Earth, a lunar orbiting space station, or a future Mars habitation will inevitably escalate these costs. For example, the inaugural voyages to Mars, anticipated to span three years round trip, may necessitate a staggering 10,000 to 11,000 kilograms of food for a four-person crew.

Food Production: In the hostile environment of space, ensuring a steady supply of nutritious food for astronauts is a formidable challenge. However, synthetic biology offers a compelling solution. By genetically modifying crops and microorganisms to thrive in space conditions, we can produce nutrient-rich food locally, reducing the dependence on Earth for resupply missions. Engineered microbes and crops can adapt to microgravity, radiation exposure, and limited resources, making them vital for long-duration missions where fresh, locally-grown food is a necessity.

Synthetic biology developments underway will provide on-demand nutrients through hydratable, single-use packets that contain microbes engineered to produce target nutrients for human consumption. The packets will be hydrated to allow the microbes to grow for a short period before they are deactivated, at which point the nutrient content can be consumed. The first demonstrations of synthetic biology nutrients will employ yeast engineered to produce Zeaxanthin when activated. Zeaxanthin is a carotenoid, which is an important antioxidant for ocular health, a known risk for astronauts who spend extended periods of time in space.

Fuel Generation: One of the primary challenges of deep space missions is the need for a sustainable source of fuel. Microbial biomanufacturing has emerged as a groundbreaking solution to this problem. By leveraging the metabolic capabilities of engineered microorganisms, it is possible to reduce the mass of fuel manufacturing significantly. For instance, a 916-day manned mission to Mars could see a 56% reduction in fuel manufacturing mass by utilizing microbial biomanufacturing. This innovation not only minimizes the logistical complexities of transporting large fuel quantities from Earth but also contributes to the overall sustainability of long-duration space missions.

Biopolymer Synthesis: The synthesis of essential materials like plastics and fibers is critical for various space applications, from equipment repair to habitat construction. Synthetic biology provides an innovative approach to biopolymer synthesis. Through genetic engineering, microorganisms can be tailored to produce these materials efficiently. Fermentation, a well-established biological manufacturing process, can be employed to create biopolymers in space, reducing the need to transport large volumes of materials from Earth. This bio-based approach not only streamlines resource utilization but also promotes sustainability in space endeavors.

Pharmaceutical Manufacture: Astronaut health is of paramount importance during space missions, and maintaining a reliable supply of pharmaceuticals is crucial. Engineered microbes play a pivotal role in ensuring the availability of essential medications. These microorganisms can be programmed to replenish expired or irradiated stocks of pharmaceuticals, eliminating the need for unmanned resupply spacecraft that can take up to 210 days to arrive. This advancement in pharmaceutical manufacture enhances the autonomy and self-sufficiency of space missions, guaranteeing the well-being of astronauts even in the harshest of space environments.

“We’re breathing oxygen that was biologically produced,” says Lynn Rothschild, the head of the synthetic biology program at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “I’m wearing cotton that was biologically produced.” “Not only does synthetic biology promise to make the travel to extraterrestrial locations more practical and bearable, it could also be transformative once explorers arrive at their destination,” says Adam Arkin, director of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division (PBD) and a leading authority on synthetic and systems biology.

In conclusion, synthetic biology has the potential to revolutionize various aspects of space exploration, including fuel generation, food production, biopolymer synthesis, and pharmaceutical manufacture. By harnessing the power of genetic engineering and microbial biomanufacturing, we can make deep space missions more sustainable, self-reliant, and resilient. These innovations not only reduce the logistical challenges associated with resupply missions but also pave the way for humanity to embark on extended missions to explore and colonize distant celestial bodies.

BioManufacturing for In-space Construction

The emerging field of space synthetic biology promises to revolutionize space exploration by harnessing the power of genetically engineered organisms to address the unique challenges of life beyond Earth. Traditional supply chains from Earth to space are unsustainable and costly, making it imperative to develop self-sustaining solutions.

Synthetic biology enables the rapid conversion of abundant resources like carbon dioxide into essential organic materials, all achieved with the assistance of genetically modified microbes. These microbes, with their enhanced capabilities, can produce plastics, fibers, and various types of feedstock required for in-space manufacturing. Using cutting-edge techniques such as 3-D printing, these microbial workers enable the on-demand construction of habitats, tools, and spare parts, revolutionizing the way we approach construction and resource utilization in space.

The impact of space synthetic biology extends far beyond the cosmos. The solutions developed for space challenges have significant applications on Earth. Whether it’s personalized medicine, sustainable agriculture, or mitigating environmental issues like carbon dioxide, these technologies hold immense promise for improving life on our home planet. The concept of paraterraformed spaces on Mars not only provides safe havens for astronauts but also serves as a blueprint for sustainable living, fostering a zero-waste, green ethos that aligns with our growing commitment to environmental sustainability.

While Martian conditions are harsh, genetic alteration empowers microorganisms to thrive in space. This resilience reduces the complexity and energy demands of life support systems, making long-duration missions more feasible. Synthetic biology encourages us to view biology as technology, allowing us to engineer biological processes for our advantage. With the ability to create everything from wires to biodegradable drones and organisms resistant to extreme conditions, the possibilities are limitless. As space synthetic biology continues to evolve, it offers cost-effective solutions and opens new frontiers in sustainability, resource utilization, and resilience for space exploration and terrestrial challenges alike.

Fermentation: A Space-Friendly Manufacturing Process

Fermentation, the process by which microbes convert sugar into various products, is well-suited for space applications. Fermentation is well-suited to space because it relies on the same equipment whether you’re making food, medicine, or polymers. The DNA in fermentation microbes can be thought of as programmable matter. Scientists on Earth can send instructions to DNA synthesizers in space, enabling the production of chemicals and materials based on real-time mission needs.

Space Challenges

Challenges abound when it comes to cultivating plants in the unique environments of space travel and planetary surfaces. These challenges can be distilled into two overarching categories: (i) the need for robust, efficient, and automated Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) facilities, and (ii) the development of crops specifically optimized for these controlled environments, allowing for precise tuning of plant metabolism to meet the dynamic demands of space missions.

Controlled Environment Agriculture, often referred to as ‘vertical farming’ or ‘indoor farming,’ revolves around creating completely sealed and controlled growth environments for plants. Within these facilities, every essential requirement for plant growth at various stages is artificially provided, encompassing factors such as water supply, temperature regulation, humidity control, ventilation, lighting, and carbon dioxide levels.

In space, physical constraints reign supreme, both during spaceflight and on planetary surfaces. Many of the challenges faced in space agriculture mirror those encountered in CEA development on Earth, including issues related to spatial constraints, power availability, water resources, lighting conditions, temperature control, atmospheric management, growth substrates, and the imperative to minimize waste and costs.

Significant strides have been made in recent years, particularly in the advancement of low-energy LED lighting systems tailored for plant growth. Consequently, the global CEA market, valued at approximately USD$75 million in 2020, is projected to soar to USD$172 million by 2025.

Space environments can introduce unexpected variables; for instance, carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations aboard the International Space Station (ISS) can substantially exceed those found in Earth’s atmosphere. An experiment with Brassica rapa (Chinese cabbage) grown on the ISS within the Veggie growth system revealed reduced biomass and necrosis, a condition attributed to elevated CO2 levels, which averaged 2800 ppm during the experiment.

To optimize space agriculture, plant architecture must also be reimagined to maximize efficiency and minimize waste. Root systems can likely be downsized, and compact crop varieties developed to facilitate vertical stacking of plants. Extensive research on plant responses to hypoxia exists, with recent biotechnological solutions proposed to enhance plant growth in hypoxic conditions.

Furthermore, spaceflight-induced stresses, including DNA damage and mitochondrial dysfunction, have been comprehensively documented in humans, and analogous challenges have been observed in plants. These multifaceted challenges underscore the necessity of innovative solutions to establish sustainable space agriculture, which will be integral to future space exploration and colonization endeavors.

Innovations in Space Synthetic Biology

Space synthetic biology has already yielded groundbreaking achievements, including the production of an inexpensive microbial-based alternative to the most effective anti-malaria drug and the development of sustainable alternatives to traditional fuels.

A Martian Colony and Earth’s Sustainability

Mars poses extreme environmental challenges for microorganisms due to its harsh surface conditions, characterized by frigid temperatures, low atmospheric pressure (5–11 mbar), intense UV-C radiation, and a predominantly carbon dioxide atmosphere (95.3%). Conventional approaches involving Earth-like culture hardware are not feasible due to their high energy consumption, massive size, and exorbitant cost, even for small-scale cultures. These systems also carry the risk of failure due to their reliance on complex technologies.

However, synthetic biology offers a promising solution. It enables the genetic modification of microorganisms to enhance their resilience in space. Through genetic alterations, organisms can be made more resistant to radiation, extreme heat, and other Martian conditions. While this may not enable them to thrive on the surface, it can significantly reduce the hardware requirements and the risk of culture loss during missions.

In essence, synthetic biology encourages us to reimagine biology as a technology, where genetic “hardware” can be engineered to address a multitude of challenges in space missions. Researchers like Rothschild are actively exploring this frontier, pushing the boundaries of genetic engineering to create organisms capable of withstanding extreme pH levels, temperature variations, and dry environments. This approach leverages computational tools, DNA synthesis advancements, and the principles of directed evolution to optimize microorganisms for space conditions, ultimately leading to substantial cost savings in terms of mass, power, and volume for space missions.

Photosynthetic organisms possess the remarkable capacity to synthesize an extensive spectrum of molecules from elemental inputs, such as CO2, H2O, and mineral nutrients. In space, where resource conservation and sustainability are paramount concerns, plants emerge as potent candidates for generating not only nourishing sustenance but also pharmaceuticals and biomaterials. Additionally, plants can contribute to vital functions like air regeneration, water recycling, and bolstering astronaut mental well-being. Realizing this potential demands substantial advancements in plant engineering, occurring hand in hand with the development of automated and exceptionally sustainable growth facilities. This holistic approach is indispensable in paving the way for self-sustaining food production, which holds the key to the future of space exploration.

The potential applications of space synthetic biology extend far beyond space missions. These technologies can address challenges such as personalized medicine, sustainable agriculture for a growing global population, and mitigating carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere. A Martian colony, with its focus on resource efficiency, can serve as a blueprint for sustainability on Earth.

Space Bioprinter

In a thought-provoking opinion piece featured in Trends in Biotechnology, a collaborative effort by researchers from the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), MIT Lincoln Laboratory, and NASA explores the promising synergy of synthetic biology and 3-D printing in supporting life during extended deep-space human missions. A captivating concept takes center stage: astronauts can carry with them Earth’s invaluable renewable resource – cells. These cells, derived from fungi and bacteria, among others, can undergo reprogramming using synthetic DNA to produce specific materials, such as bioplastics. Subsequently, these tailor-made materials can be channeled into 3-D printers to fabricate an array of essential items for spaceflight, encompassing hardware, medical devices, medication, and even food.

The authors envisage a future where synthetic biology takes the helm in crafting personalized biological “ink” for 3-D printing, a transformative process offering scientists the autonomy to adapt to unforeseen challenges. Jessica Snyder, a USRA researcher leading the synthetic biology task for NASA Academic Mission Services, underscores the significance of this approach, highlighting its potential to design solutions for the unknown.

Venturing into the realm of practical implementation, bioprinting companies like Allevi are collaborating with pioneers like Made in Space to introduce the first bioprinter to the cosmic arena. Made in Space, renowned for its two 3D printers aboard the International Space Station (ISS), aims to broaden research horizons by incorporating Allevi’s ZeroG extruder. This innovative extruder, purposefully designed for zero gravity environments, seamlessly integrates into the existing printer, allowing for the utilization of biomaterials like hydrogels and hyperelastic bone. Furthermore, meticulous temperature control systems ensure optimal printing conditions, recognizing the unique heat dynamics at play in the absence of Earth’s gravitational pull.

NASA Space Synthetic Biology (SynBio)

The future of NASA’s long-duration lunar and Mars missions hinges on resource efficiency, recycling, and the utilization of local materials to reduce the reliance on Earth-bound supplies. The Space Synthetic Biology (SynBio) project, headquartered at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, is at the forefront of developing cutting-edge technologies for on-demand biomanufacturing of essential products required by space crews.

SynBio holds the promise of creating a wide range of valuable products, including vitamins, medicines, healthy fats, proteins, and even construction materials, using resources available at the mission site. This innovative approach aligns with the vision of making it on location rather than taking everything from Earth.

A notable experiment within the SynBio project is BioNutrients, which explores in-space nutrient production. It employs genetically-engineered baker’s yeast and a long-lasting growth substrate to synthesize specific antioxidants, such as beta carotene and zeaxanthin, akin to those found in carrots and bell peppers. The experiment uses a small, handheld device called a production pack. The production pack contains a dried, edible growth substrate and microorganisms genetically engineered to rapidly produce controlled quantities of essential nutrients. When water is added to the production pack, the microorganisms revive and grow until limited by the depletion of growth media. This process produces beta-carotene and zeaxanthin, two nutrients that are essential for human health.

The BioNutrients experiment is still ongoing, but the early results have been promising. The production packs have been shown to produce the desired nutrients in a consistent and reliable manner. The next phase of the experiment will involve testing the production packs on astronauts in space.

Furthermore, the SynBio project encompasses the development of a technology that chemically transforms carbon dioxide (CO2) and water into organic compounds. These compounds serve as sustenance for microbial biomanufacturing systems, enabling the production of diverse products ranging from food and medicines to plastics. This environmentally friendly method holds the potential for broader applications in sustainable product creation on Earth. As part of this initiative, NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate has enlisted scientists and engineers nationwide to convert CO2 into molecules, amplifying the reach and impact of synthetic biology technologies. These endeavors not only contribute to astronaut health but also enhance the sustainability of NASA’s missions, extending from lunar exploration to beyond.

NASA’s Space Biology Program

NASA’s Space Biology Program is at the forefront of advancing our understanding of the impact of space-related stressors on organisms and delving into the fundamental mechanisms underlying these effects. These stressors encompass galactic cosmic radiation (GCR), solar particle events (SPEs), and the unique influence of reduced gravity. Historically, biological experiments in space have predominantly unfolded within the confines of Low Earth Orbit (LEO), whether through the Space Shuttle Program, aboard the International Space Station (ISS), or via small satellite missions. However, the realm beyond LEO remains a largely uncharted territory in terms of comprehending the biological ramifications of its conditions.

To address this knowledge gap, a series of research projects have been chosen with the aim of broadening our insights into biological responses beyond LEO. These projects will involve the cultivation and monitoring of yeast, a eukaryotic microorganism, on the lunar surface, employing the specialized BioSensor hardware. This microfluidic system enables the growth of yeast and facilitates the measurement of critical parameters like cell growth and metabolic activity. Of particular significance is the lunar surface’s distinctive radiation environment, encompassing factors such as GCR and neutrons, the latter arising from interactions between primary particles and the lunar surface.

It’s important to note that the awarded projects focus on preparing experimental payloads, integrating them into the Biosensor hardware, and conducting biocompatibility testing under simulated lunar conditions on Earth. These vital steps will ensure that the experimental payload is fully functional and ready for future missions, without directly involving the flight opportunity itself. Collaboration with NASA engineers will be integral in this process, encompassing hardware integration and rigorous testing to validate the system’s performance, functionality, and readiness for flight missions.

These pioneering space biology investigations will be carried out by three principal investigators hailing from two institutions in two different states, collectively receiving approximately $900,000 in funding allocated over fiscal years 2022-2025. This funding signifies a crucial investment in advancing our understanding of how living organisms respond to the challenges posed by the space environment, specifically beyond the confines of Low Earth Orbit.

Recent Breakthroughs

Yeast engineered to produce oxygen in space

In 2023, a team of scientists from the University of California, Berkeley, developed a new way to engineer yeast to produce oxygen in space. This could help to improve the air quality for astronauts on long-duration missions.

The team of scientists used synthetic biology to genetically modify yeast to produce more oxygen than they normally do. They also modified the yeast to be more resistant to the harsh conditions of space, such as the lack of gravity and the high levels of radiation.

The modified yeast has been shown to produce enough oxygen to support the breathing needs of one astronaut for up to 24 hours. The team of scientists is now working to scale up the production of the modified yeast so that it can be used on future space missions.

Plants grown in microgravity

In 2023, a team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed a new way to grow plants in microgravity. This could help to provide astronauts with a sustainable source of food on long-duration missions.

The team of scientists developed a new type of plant growth chamber that uses fluid dynamics to create a simulated gravity environment. The plant growth chamber is also equipped with a nutrient delivery system that ensures that the plants have the nutrients they need to grow.

The team of scientists has successfully grown several different types of plants in the plant growth chamber, including tomatoes, lettuce, and strawberries. The plants grown in the plant growth chamber are comparable in size and nutritional content to plants grown on Earth.

The team of scientists is now working to improve the efficiency of the plant growth chamber so that it can be used to grow larger quantities of food.

Materials resistant to radiation

In 2023, a team of scientists from the University of Arizona developed a new way to use synthetic biology to create new materials that are resistant to radiation. This could help to protect astronauts from the harmful effects of radiation during space travel.

The team of scientists used synthetic biology to engineer bacteria to produce a new type of polymer that is resistant to radiation. The polymer is made up of repeating units of a sugar molecule that has been modified to be more resistant to radiation.

The team of scientists has shown that the polymer can be used to make a variety of materials, including films, coatings, and fibers. The materials are still in the early stages of development, but they have the potential to be used to protect astronauts from the harmful effects of radiation during space travel.

Conclusion

Space Synthetic Biology holds the key to making deep space exploration not just possible but sustainable. By harnessing the power of genetic engineering and biology, humanity is taking a giant leap towards thriving in the cosmos. As we venture further into the universe, Space Synthetic Biology may well be the technology that ensures our success and longevity beyond our home planet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

References and resources also include:

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0958166921001646

 

 

About Rajesh Uppal

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