6:56 am - Wednesday November 4, 2015

Synthetic biology key to space exploration

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WASHINGTON: Synthetic biology may hold the key to manned space exploration of the Moon and Mars, say scientists.

Researchers have found that biomanufacturing based on microbes could make travel to and settlement of extraterrestrial locations more practical and bearable.

Researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in the US 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, researchers said.

“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,” said Adam Arkin, director of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division (PBD).

“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 said.

Arkin is the senior author of a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface that reported 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.”

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 per cent, the mass of food-shipments by 38 per cent, and the shipped mass to 3D-print a habitat for six by a whopping 85 per cent.

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.

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