A biology experiment called BioNutrients is testing a way to use microorganisms to produce nutrients – off Earth and on demand – that will be critical for human health in space.
Sailors might have avoided scurvy if NASA had been around in the age of exploration on the high seas. The condition is caused by a vitamin C deficiency, and many people died from spending months at sea without fresh fruits and vegetables. In the age of exploration into deep space, astronauts, too, will need a way to get the right nutrition. Planning ways to supply food for a multi-year mission on the Moon or Mars may require making food and nutrients in space. NASA scientists are testing an early version of a potential solution: get microorganisms to produce vital nutrients so that, whenever they’re needed, astronauts can drink them down. The same kind of system designed for space could also help provide nutrition for people in remote areas of our planet.
Microbial Nutrient Factories
With an experiment called BioNutrients, astronauts aboard the International Space Station will help test a new system over the course of five years. It was developed by scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in California’s Silicon Valley, using this strategy: take a safe organism already present in our food (in this case, baker’s yeast), modify it so that it produces an essential nutrient, and build the right hardware to let astronauts grow the yeast in space. Like tiny living factories, the microorganisms will go about making the desired product. The nutrients that the yeast will produce in this experiment are called beta carotene and zeaxanthin. These are antioxidants usually found in vegetables, and they’re critical for keeping our eyes healthy.
Although astronauts on the space station will not consume anything for the BioNutrients experiment, they will conduct multiple rounds of tests on the system. For each test, they’ll add sterile water to a mixture of dehydrated yeast and its powdered food source, mix well and keep the packet warm for 48 hours. Then, they’ll freeze it to be analyzed later, back on Earth. NASA scientists will check how the system performed, including how much yeast grew in the packets and how much nutrient the experiment produced.
Essential (Nutrients) for Exploration
An on-demand nutrient production system like this will be vital for human exploration, because it may not be possible to provide complete nutrition from stored foods during a multi-year mission. What’s more, even with a supply of nutritional supplements, many nutrients have a limited shelf life. Some things, like vitamins, also just work better in their fresh form than in a processed tablet.
The BioNutrients system will test two types of yeast with different “lifestyles” in the nutrient-production packets. One makes spores, a dormant form of the organism, as part of its lifecycle. The yeast should stay stable in this form for five years, giving it a reasonable expiration date for use during long-term missions on the Moon or to the surface of Mars. The other type does not make spores, and so may have a shorter shelf life. However, this type is interesting for other reasons. People are already eating this same yeast in probiotic supplements on the market today. And there are many more yeast species of this type available to scientists for potential use in future nutrient production systems, so understanding how they work could be important for the research.
Space station crew members will perform tests on both yeast types periodically over the course of this initial experiment. This will allow scientists to check how long their specially engineered yeast stays good on the shelf and able to churn out fresh nutrients that humans will need to stay healthy in space.
Making Molecules and Medicines in Remote Places
This technology NASA is developing for future astronauts could also be used by people living in remote areas on Earth today. Results from the study will tell NASA scientists a lot about how to produce other molecules that will be critical for human health in space, including medicines for treating various ailments. Promising research is under way now to use microbes in a range of space applications. By developing microorganisms that can withstand long periods of inactivity and be revived successfully, BioNutrients is also taking steps toward making that future a reality.
- April 2019 – The BioNutrients experiment is scheduled to launch to the International Space Station aboard Northrop Grumman’s 11th Cargo Resupply Service mission
BioNutrients was developed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. The Game Changing Development program within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate manages the project, which is part of a larger synthetic biology portfolio. The project was previously funded by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems program within the Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate.
- BioNutrients – Technical experiment page, NASA Ames Space Biosciences division
- BioNutrients – International Space Station technical mission page
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Members of the news media interested in covering this topic should get in touch with the science representative on the NASA Ames media contacts page.