Algae growing in the ground control veggie unit at Kennedy Space Center
Image: Mark Settles

Brad Buck at Southeast AG NET Radio Network reports that a University of Florida scientist will use the International Space Station to see if algae can help recycle carbon dioxide and eventually be used to help make plastics, resins and even food.

Initially, researchers want to improve algae’s ability to use light to capture carbon, and in turn, help support animal and plant life in space, said Mark Settles, a UF professor of horticultural sciences.

Vasil-Monsanto professor of plant cell and molecular biology, Dr. A. Mark Settles

Dr. Settles will put plants on a payload bound from the Kennedy Space Center for the ISS. The launch is scheduled for June 29.

“I’ve recently become interested in applying synthetic biology to plants, particularly to understand how starch and grain-storage proteins accumulate in the cells,” said Dr. Settles, a faculty member at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Corn is very hard to manipulate and takes a long time to develop improved varieties.

“I figured I could start by working with algae and that NASA would be interested in engineering algae that could be used as food,” he said. “We are adapting algae to grow as fast they do in conventional liquid cultures on Earth.”

Among its advantages, cultivated algae could provide a system to recycle carbon dioxide and perhaps eventually provide food or a source of vitamins for crew members on long space voyages, said Dr. Settles. “Previous studies show rodents and chickens eat algae, so it’s edible for humans, too, although astronauts don’t eat it yet.”

In conducting his month-long experiment, Dr. Settles will select algal strains that improve growth in a microgravity environment.

“Algal oils can produce fuel or be used to make plastics and resins in space. Algae also make carotenoids and vitamins, which are important for human nutrition,” he said. “This is critical because space flight diminishes astronauts’ vision and exposes them to cosmic radiation. Algal carotenoids may help mitigate some of these harmful effects.”

Dr. Settles’ next step is to extract DNA and sequence the genome of the space-selected algal strains. He and his research team also will propagate the space strains in the lab to maintain them for future space missions. “The long-term goal is to engineer algae to produce the valuable stuff without so much waste plant material,” he says.

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