Astronauts could someday reap the benefits of recycling while on long space trips, as their urine could become raw materials for 3D printers, all thanks to microbes.
New research suggests that harnessing microbes is a way for humanity to bring its footprint further out into space. Mark Blenner of Clemson University in South Carolina, lead author on the study, said in a statement,
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. Atom economy will become really important.
Blenner and colleagues have been studying the yeast Yarrowia lipolytica and its recycling capabilities, Space.com reports. They found that this yeast is able to get the nitrogen it needs to thrive from urea in untreated urine. The microbes can also take carbon from carbon dioxide, which would be present in astronauts’ breath or the atmosphere on Mars.
One specific strain of the yeast creates omega-3 fatty acids, which help with heart and brain health. Omega-3 pills don’t last long, so yeast cells generating them while on a spacecraft would help astronauts immensely, Blenner said.
Astronauts staying at the International Space Station already drink their recycled urine.
Blenner explained, “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.”
Another strain of Y. lipolytica has been genetically altered to produce polyester, which could serve as materials for 3D printers. There are two 3D printers onboard the ISS, and NASA officials have already pointed to this technology’s large role in eventually sending crewed missions to Mars and other places.
The researchers are already trying to see if the yeast can increase its polyester production.
The team’s findings were presented at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C.