Subscribe free to our newsletters via your
. 24/7 Space News .

Synthetic Biology for Space Exploration
by Staff Writers
Berkeley CA (SPX) Nov 10, 2014

Microbial-based biomanufacturing could be transformative once explorers arrive at an extraterrestrial site. Image courtesy of Royal Academy Interface. For a larger version of this image please go here.

Does synthetic biology hold the key to manned space exploration of the Moon and Mars? Berkeley Lab researchers have used synthetic biology to produce an inexpensive and reliable microbial-based alternative to the world's most effective anti-malaria drug, and to develop clean, green and sustainable alternatives to gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. In the future, synthetic biology could also be used to make manned space missions more practical.

"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.

"During flight, the ability to augment fuel and other energy needs, to provide small amounts of needed materials, plus renewable, nutritional and taste-engineered food, and drugs-on-demand can save costs and increase astronaut health and welfare," Arkin says. "At an extraterrestrial base, synthetic biology could make even more effective use of the catalytic activities of diverse organisms."

Arkin is the senior author of a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface that reports on a techno-economic analysis demonstrating "the significant utility of deploying non-traditional biological techniques to harness available volatiles and waste resources on manned long-duration space missions." The paper is titled "Towards Synthetic Biological Approaches to Resource Utilization on Space Missions."

The lead and corresponding author is Amor Menezes, a postdoctoral scholar in Arkin's research group at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. Other co-authors are John Cumbers and John Hogan with the NASA Ames Research Center. One of the biggest challenges to manned space missions is the expense.

The NASA rule-of-thumb is that every unit mass of payload launched requires the support of an additional 99 units of mass, with "support" encompassing everything from fuel to oxygen to food and medicine for the astronauts, etc.

Most of the current technologies now deployed or under development for providing this support are abiotic, meaning non-biological. Arkin, Menezes and their collaborators have shown that providing this support with technologies based on existing biological processes is a more than viable alternative.

"Because synthetic biology allows us to engineer biological processes to our advantage, we found in our analysis that technologies, when using common space metrics such as mass, power and volume, have the potential to provide substantial cost savings, especially in mass," Menezes says.

In their study, the authors looked 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. "Space has always provided a wonderful test of whether technology can meet strict engineering standards for both effect and safety," Arkin says.

"NASA has worked decades to ensure that the specifications that new technologies must meet are rigorous and realistic, which allowed us to perform up-front techno-economic analysis."

The big advantage biological manufacturing holds over abiotic manufacturing is the remarkable ability of natural and engineered microbes to transform very simple starting substrates, such as carbon dioxide, water biomass or minerals, into materials that astronauts on long-term missions will need. This capability should prove especially useful for future extraterrestrial settlements.

"The mineral and carbon composition of other celestial bodies is different from the bulk of Earth, but the earth is diverse with many extreme environments that have some relationship to those that might be found at possible bases on the Moon or Mars," Arkin says.

"Microbes could be used to greatly augment the materials available at a landing site, enable the biomanufacturing of food and pharmaceuticals, and possibly even modify and enrich local soils for agriculture in controlled environments."

The authors acknowledge that much of their analysis is speculative and that their calculations show a number of significant challenges to making biomanufacturing a feasible augmentation and replacement for abiotic technologies. However, they argue that the investment to overcome these barriers offers dramatic potential payoff for future space programs.

"We've got a long way to go since experimental proof-of-concept work in synthetic biology for space applications is just beginning, but long-duration manned missions are also a ways off," says Menezes.

"Abiotic technologies were developed for many, many decades before they were successfully utilized in space, so of course biological technologies have some catching-up to do. However, this catching-up may not be that much, and in some cases, the biological technologies may already be superior to their abiotic counterparts."

This research was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the University of California, Santa Cruz.


Related Links
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory
Space Tourism, Space Transport and Space Exploration News

Comment on this article via your Facebook, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail login.

Share this article via these popular social media networks DiggDigg RedditReddit GoogleGoogle

Memory Foam Mattress Review
Newsletters :: SpaceDaily :: SpaceWar :: TerraDaily :: Energy Daily
XML Feeds :: Space News :: Earth News :: War News :: Solar Energy News

Eye-catching space technology restoring sight
Paris (ESA) Nov 05, 2014
Laser surgery to correct eyesight is common practice, but did you know that technology developed for use in space is now commonly used to track the patient's eye and precisely direct the laser scalpel? If you look at a fixed point while tilting or shaking your head, your eyes automatically hold steady, allowing you to see clearly even while moving around. This neat trick of nature is a ref ... read more

China examines the three stages of lunar test run

China gears up for lunar mission after round-trip success

NASA's LRO Spacecraft Captures Images of LADEE's Impact Crater

New lunar mission to test Chang'e-5 technology

NASA's Curiosity Mars Rover Finds Mineral Match

MAVEN Continues Mars Exploration Begun 50 Years Ago by Mariner 4

You can't get to Mars, but your name can

A One Way Trip to Mars

Synthetic Biology for Space Exploration

Orion Takes Big Step Before Moving to the Launch Pad

NASA Program Enhances Climate Resilience at Agency Facilities

SpaceShipTwo Manufacturer May Face Setback After Crash in California

China's Lunar Orbiter Makes Safe Landing, First in 40 Years

China's First Lunar Return Mission A Stunning Success

China completes first mission to moon and back

Wenchang to launch China's next space station

ISS Agency Heads Issue Joint Statement

Station Trio Prepares for Departure amid Ongoing Science

Students text International Space Station using a 20-foot antenna

Student Experiments Lost in Antares Rocket Explosion

Soyuz Installed at Baikonur, Expected to Launch Wednesday

Spaceflight partners with JAMSS to loft 8 CubeSats on JAXA mission

Arianespace signs contract with ELV for ten Vega launchers

NASA Completes Initial Assessment after Orbital Launch Mishap

Peering into Planetary Atmospheres

VLTI detects exozodiacal light

Yale finds a planet that won't stick to a schedule

In a first, astronomers map comets around another star

ORNL materials researchers get first look at atom-thin boundaries

From earphones to jet engines, 3D printing takes off

ESA space ferry moves ISS to avoid debris

EIAST and AUS launch UAE's first CubeSat Mission Nayif-1

The content herein, unless otherwise known to be public domain, are Copyright 1995-2014 - Space Media Network. All websites are published in Australia and are solely subject to Australian law and governed by Fair Use principals for news reporting and research purposes. AFP, UPI and IANS news wire stories are copyright Agence France-Presse, United Press International and Indo-Asia News Service. ESA news reports are copyright European Space Agency. All NASA sourced material is public domain. Additional copyrights may apply in whole or part to other bona fide parties. Advertising does not imply endorsement, agreement or approval of any opinions, statements or information provided by Space Media Network on any Web page published or hosted by Space Media Network. Privacy Statement All images and articles appearing on Space Media Network have been edited or digitally altered in some way. Any requests to remove copyright material will be acted upon in a timely and appropriate manner. Any attempt to extort money from Space Media Network will be ignored and reported to Australian Law Enforcement Agencies as a potential case of financial fraud involving the use of a telephonic carriage device or postal service.