Dr. Mark Blenner, Assistant Professor of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering, recently received an Early Career Faculty Award from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to study microbial synthesis of nutraceuticals and materials to enable long-term space exploration. The project entitled “Synthetic Biology for Recycling Human Waste into Nutraceuticals and Materials: Closing the Loop for Long-Term Space Travel” was among 8 awards NASA has selected to study innovative, early stage technologies that will address high-priority needs of America’s space program. The award funds 3 years of research for $600,000.
It is impractical for astronauts to travel with all necessary supplies in future long-term space exploration missions. Therefore, it is imperative that technologies enabling the production of food, nutraceuticals, medicine, and materials from extraterrestrial resources are developed. These resources found in space include minerals and feedstocks found on distant bodies, waste generated by humans and space shuttle operation, and solar energy. Together with synthetic biology-driven technology for engineering microorganisms that can reliably, efficiently, and flexibly utilize such “in situ resources”, astronauts will be able to generate the food, nutraceuticals, medicine, and materials they need to carry out their mission. Due to potential uncertainty in resource availability, this proposal focuses on engineering yeast to convert respiration carbon dioxide, algae biomass, and human urine into nutritional omega-3 fats and 3D printable plastics. The technology developed through this project will not only be limited to applications in space. The Blenner Research Group is also interested in figuring out how to convert municipal and industrial waste streams into more valuable products, such as biofuels, and renewable lubricants and plasticizers. The lessons learned from utilizing space waste may be translated to developing new bioprocesses on earth.
NASA’s Early Career Faculty efforts are an element of the agency’s Space Technology Research Grants Program. This program is designed to accelerate the development of technologies originating from academia that support the future science and exploration needs of NASA, other government agencies, and the commercial space sector.