With long haul space travel becoming a more likely prospect, scientists are scrambling to invent creative ways for astronauts to survive aboard a spacecraft on a trip to a planet like Mars.
[Image Source: NASA/Wikipedia]
“Atom economy” is the primary concern for such a journey and every item the crew takes with them should have multiple uses, including their urine.
"If astronauts are going to make journeys that span several years, we'll need to find a way to reuse and recycle everything they bring with them," said leading researcher from Clemson University Mark A. Blenner, Ph.D.
[Image Source: American Chemical Society]
Turning sweat, urine and other fluids into plastic tools
Blenner and his team are finding creative ways to recycle human waste. This means turning molecules from sweat, urine and other fluids into plastic tools and parts that can be integrated into the spacecraft’s operating systems.
This is a game changing concept since taking an excess of tools and supplies into space could weigh down the craft significantly, burning precious fuel needed to propel out of Earth’s atmosphere.
Currently, NASA astronauts aboard the ISS (International Space Station) drink recycled urine to alleviate the problem of drinking water, but Blenner wants to take this further.
"Having a biological system that astronauts can awaken from a dormant state to start producing what they need, when they need it, is the motivation for our project," he says.
Uses of the yeast Yarrowia lipolytica
The system Blenner plans on using contains the yeast Yarrowia lipolytica. The strains from this unique organism require both nitrogen and carbon to develop. Luckily urine contains enough nitrogen to fulfill the yeast’s growing needs. Regarding Carbon, that can be obtained from astronaut’s exhaled breath or, the Martian atmosphere. Bringing these components together into an ingestible form is algae which are provided by the researchers.
Yarrowia lipolytica strains have dual uses, one produces omega-3 fatty acids, which we know provide much-needed support to our eye, heart and brain health. Something astronauts will need in droves during a trip that can put a massive strain on the human body.
Another strain can create monomers which can then make polyester polymers. These polymers can then be put into an on-board 3-D printer to create plastic parts for the ship.
At the moment, the researchers have produced small amounts of yeast engineered polyester and nutrients, but the new information they are attaining from these experiments are also benefiting farming and human nutrition on earth. Fish raised in farms who need omega-3 supplements could now receive them from Blenner’s strains.
Additionally, the Clemson team is discovering the special nature of Y. lipolytica and its alternative uses beyond fellow yeasts typically used for beer production. Though scientists like Anne A. Madden Ph.D. at North Carolina State University are making beer out of paper wasp yeast. It seems the possibilities with such a small organism are endless.
Despite the reality of urine produced tools being somewhat far away, Blenner feels that we are still learning a great deal about the power of life on our own planet.
"Every new organism has some amount of quirkiness that you have to focus on and understand better," he said.
Watch more about these innovations in the video below.