ohn Wenz reports in Popular Mechanics that Dr. Mark Blenner, a research group leader at Clemson University, is developing a smart way for future deep space explorers to recycle their bodily waste into nutritional supplements to keep them alive and even create useful building materials to keep the ship up and running.
What Dr. Blenner is really doing is a new take on something the International Space Station already does: He’s recycling human exhalation and micturation (breath and pee) and turning it into raw materials.
He and his team want to feed carbon dioxide from human breath to algae cultures. Those algae cultures in turn produce lipids and other fats that, in combination with urea (derived in this case from human urine), are a favorite snack of yeast. The genetically engineered yeast will use these nutrients to create two important chemicals for astronauts: omega-3 fatty acids, and plastics.
The omega-3s are important because they could be developed into a dietary supplement that astronauts would take while in transit or consumed as a food product. The polyester plastics, meanwhile, would provide raw materials for 3D printing, so astronauts could make tools without having to haul bulky materials up to space. The algae and yeast cultures probably would be dry stored, reducing their weight upon launch.
Dr. Blenner and his team were granted a $200,000 per year award as part of the NASA Early Career Faculty program. One of the project’s larger goals is to get yeast to produce EPA and DHA. “Those two omega 3s aren’t synthesized by much of anything,” he says. “They’re only synthesized in diatoms and phytoplankton.”
The yeast culture in question already has a mechanism for producing chains of fatty acids. With some genetic tinkering, it should be able to produce the omega-3s, say the researchers.
“We think by the end of the three-year period we’ll have a better handle on what other technical challenges we need to overcome to make this work,” Dr. Blenner says. “The promise of synthetic biology is that, in principle, you should be able to produce lots of other kinds of materials.”