Synthetic biology to help colonize Mars – PLoS Blogs (blog)

Posted: March 1, 2017 at 8:49 pm

Shannon Nangle finished her PhD ready to take on a new challenge and set her sights on research to help makeMars colonization possible. But she isnt pursuing research on rocket fuels or space suits. Shes using synthetic biology to improve biomanufacturing of needed resources using simple inputs like sunlight,water, and CO2.

In 2015, a collaboration between Pam Silver and Daniel Noceras lab showed that the bacteriumRalstonia eutropha could be used along with water splitting to create biomass andfusel alcohols. Then in 2016 they followed up with bionic leaf 2.0 that useda more biocompatible catalyst to beat the efficiency of natural photosynthesis. Now, the technology has to beexpanded and scaled up to take on the many potential applications of an efficient solar to bioproduct technology.

To find out about the latest work to help move the bionic leaf out of the lab and maybe one day to Mars, I met with Shannon and graduate student Marika Ziesack, both members of Pam Silvers lab, in their Harvard Medical School lab space. I saw the benchtop setup for testingRalstonia eutrophawiththe biocompatible catalysts. A power source connects to the small electrodes that sit in the compartment with the bacteria. As the electricity is applied it splits waterwhich as H2O has two hydrogens and one oxygen atom into hydrogen and oxygen. The bacterium,Ralstonia eutropha in this case, can then use that hydrogen along with carbon dioxide to produce biomass like thebio-plastic precursor polymer polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB).

Ralstonia eutrophacan also be engineered to overproduce certain fatty acids and enzymes that allow for more biopolymers than just PHB. Thats one of the improvements that Shannon and Marika are working on so that biopolymers with different structural properties can be produced and used as biodegradable materials here on earth or as renewable building blocks on Mars.

Other engineering improvements can be made so the bacteria can tolerate stresses like high salt concentrations that can improve conductivity of the solution. They even mentioned the possibility of a bacterium that can grow in a mixture that includes urine waste to allowmore sustainable water recycling. Bacteria grown in a lab or production facility usually need a feedstock of biomass that can end up being the big cost in the bioplastic production. With sunlight, water, and air as inputs its possible to bypass the expensive feedstocks that would be normally be used to create these bioplastics.

To truly tackle applications like space exploration, synthetic biology will need to prove itself in the field. Others have noted that synthetic biology can be crucial to a Mars mission but first it has to get off of a lab bench. Thats why the team at Harvard areworking on more portable versions of the bionic leaf to hopefully show that it could work outside of the labusing only resources readily found on Earth or on Mars: solar power, water, and carbon dioxide.

Among the many challenges of Mars colonization would be the need to use resources found on Mars instead of bringing everything from Earth. This use of resources found in space is usually referred to as in situ resource utilization, and it would be necessary for long term space missions or colonization. There is a different set of resources out in space than on Earth, but in the last few years NASA has shown that water exists on Mars with frozen deposits reaching the amount of water in Lake Superior. Then if solar power can be used to split that water then hydrogen would be produced and you would just need CO2 to produce bioplastics. Fortunately, even though Mars atmosphere is 100 times less dense than on Earth, 96% of it is made up of CO2. So if a technology like synthetic biology can reliably turnwater and CO2 into useful materials would be ideal for conditions on Mars.

Then once engineered bacteria can convert the in situ resources into something useful like bioplastics, further processing can be done to make needed tools. With bioplastics that can mean 3D printing of products that are made in a renewable fashion with biodegradable materials. So even if this technology never makes it to Mars it may finds ways to replace some of the harsh chemical processes we currently use with biological processes.

Biology has already found a way to do many chemical processes extremely efficiently without high heat or harshchemicals often used in industrial processes. As researchers learn to harness the diverse biological pathways that already exist there will be more opportunities to engineer cells that can replace chemical reactors. More sophisticated models could even lead to predictions of exactly which pathway should be used to meet your final product needs. The possibility of taking advantage of so many capabilities that biology provides is what excites so manyover synthetic biology as a technology.

But for now,the bionic leaf and other promising synthetic biology tools will haveto prove how they can scale and perform in tough conditions outside of the lab. As they do that, synthetic biology researchers like Shannon will be moving us toward the big goals likemaking Mars colonization possible.

Synthetic biology to help colonize Mars – PLoS Blogs (blog)

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