Soon, astronauts may be able to make the critical nutrients to maintain their health while on long-duration exploration missions to the Moon and Mars. This new technology would solve the problem of nutrition depletion in food and supplements over time. The capability is especially useful for missions where regularly launching supplies from Earth is difficult.
This month, NASA will launch and begin testing a platform that will enable microorganisms to create vital nutrients in space, on the spot.
“There is a strong need to make certain products in space, especially things like vitamins and medicines with short shelf-lives,” said John Hogan, project manager of the BioNutrients experiments at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. BioNutrients will demonstrate in-situ microbial production of targeted nutrients.
The strategy NASA scientists developed to accomplish this is modifying baker’s yeast to produce particular nutrients and providing the appropriate equipment that will allow astronauts to grow this same “actively-producing yeast” in space. The plan is for this yeast to create the nutrients beta carotene and zeaxanthin, antioxidants that maintain eye health and are typically found in vegetables. Techniques are also being developed to use carbon dioxide and water obtained during the mission to “feed” the microbes.
This type of on-the-spot nutrient production will be valuable in the coming years for deep-space missions, but also for nutrient-production on Earth. “Developing new methods for safely making nutrients and medicines on-demand, using local resources, can help maintain human health and well-being everywhere,” said Hogan.
The BioNutrients experiment will kick off this April, when the first nutrient-production packets arrive at the International Space Station. Over the next five years, astronauts will test two types of yeast. One type is stored as spores, a very stable dormant form of the organism. The other type is a probiotic yeast that does not make spores, and may have a shelf life shorter than five years.
Both growth test units and microbe storage units will be returned at set intervals during the five year period to evaluate the concept and facilitate overall system development. NASA scientists on Earth will document how well the yeast grew in the packets and how much nutrient they produced.
BioNutrients is not the only synthetic biology project at NASA. The agency receives data from a project called PowerCell, which launched on the German Aerospace Center’s EuCROPIS satellite in December 2018. NASA’s PowerCell project tests the use of genetic engineering and synthetic biology to create mini-ecologies, which will ultimately generate, on-demand, useful products that satisfy specific needs of long-term human presence away from Earth.
These synthetic biology technologies will be a critical aspect of astronaut health and the sustainability of future NASA missions to the Moon and beyond.
“Microbes are a brilliant manufacturing system for making many products that only biology can, and they will provide critical support for sustainable space exploration,” Hogan said.
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.