Synthetic biological can reduce payloads for food, fuel, drugs and other space mission needs

Synthetic biology can be very useful to harness available volatiles and waste resources on manned missions to explore the Moon and Mars. Compared with anticipated non-biological approaches, it is determined that for 916 day Martian missions: 205 days of high-quality methane and oxygen Mars bioproduction with Methanobacterium thermoautotrophicum can reduce the mass of a Martian fuel-manufacture plant by 56%; 496 days of biomass generation with Arthrospira platensis and Arthrospira maxima on Mars can decrease the shipped wet-food mixed-menu mass for a Mars stay and a one-way voyage by 38%; 202 days of Mars polyhydroxybutyrate synthesis with Cupriavidus necator can lower the shipped mass to three-dimensional print a 120 m3 six-person habitat by 85% and a few days of acetaminophen production with engineered Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803 can completely replenish expired or irradiated stocks of the pharmaceutical, thereby providing independence from unmanned resupply spacecraft that take up to 210 days to arrive. Analogous outcomes are included for lunar missions. Because of the benign assumptions involved, the results provide a glimpse of the intriguing potential of ‘space synthetic biology’, and help focus related efforts for immediate, near-term impact.

Future synthetic biology and technological efforts should focus on improving bioreactor nutrient recycling percentages, enhancing bioproduction of alternative nitrous oxide fuels, bettering flavours of Spirulina, testing interlocking three-dimensional printed PHB blocks in habitat and furniture construction, and increasing biosynthesis efficiencies of desired outputs, including pharmaceuticals. Because there also exist organisms that can leverage carbon monoxide on a large scale, the product yields that can be achieved by converting carbon dioxide to a biological feedstock of carbon monoxide remain to be explored. Perhaps this exploration can be achieved with a more formal constructed model, which consists of plug-and-play modules of biological pathways and processes that can be interchanged to predict outputs and their levels and help determine overall process efficiencies when including reactor sizing, power requirements, etc. The benefits of using communities and symbiotic organisms instead of single organism species is another avenue of future work. Next steps should also include testing this paper’s biological designs in simulated lunar and Martian atmospheric conditions to explore the effect of different gas partial pressures and percentage concentrations on organism fitness, determine the adverse effects of long-term radiation on production performance and develop ways to efficiently extract newly synthesized products from organisms while in an extraterrestrial environment.

It may be significantly cheaper to three-dimensional print a habitat on both Mars and Moon missions by switching from stereolithographic additive manufacturing to biopolymer-based fused deposition modelling.