What do rubber tires, antifreeze, plastic Tupperware, and prescription medicine tablets have in common? The answer: All have ingredients that can be made by bacteria. Bacteria are literal manufacturers, taking in solid matter from their environment, processing it into nutrients they can use, and churning out a variety of chemical byproducts—many of which we can use. And a new Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiative is exploring the possibility of bringing bacteria up into space and putting them to work making products for human space crews.
The project is called B-SURE, short for Biomanufacturing, Survival, Utility, and Reliability Beyond Earth. And its leadership team within DARPA’s Biological Technologies office intends for it to solve a critical problem that astronauts venturing beyond Earth orbit will run into: the lack of manufacturing capacity up in space.
B-SURE’s space microbes idea is not entirely new. It’s the latest application of a rising trend known as “biomanufacturing,” which engineers define as using living microorganisms—microbes, plant cells, animal cells, etc.—to produce goods, instead of relying on synthetic industrial processes.
Using yeast to make bread is one classic example. In recent years, scientists have developed more, putting microbes to the task of making:
- fuel for motor vehicles
- industrial chemicals such as isopropanol (used in antifreeze, pharmaceuticals, and cleaning fluids); acetone (used in manufacturing plastics and textiles); and isoprene (used to make rubber and adhesives).
Preparing Microbes for Space
All of the above are happening right now on Earth. DARPA’s aspiration is “space biomanufacturing”: Over an 18-month timespan, the project will provide funding to universities and industry groups to research and develop ways of optimizing biomanufacturing for use aboard spacecraft and space stations.
Groups that want to participate can submit proposals to DARPA. The agency is laying out three specific program “tracks,” and calls for proposals to tie in with any one—or more—of the three:
Track 1: “Alternative Feedstock Utilization”
Researchers will feed microbes varieties of “space-based” feedstocks and track how quickly the microbes consume them and what kinds of molecules they produce. The hope is that they will be molecules we can use. Or if not, the researchers may tweak the process so that the right molecules come out.
Track 2: “Variable Gravity”
Researchers will try to learn more precisely how life in low-gravity affects microbe production, and how we can make them grow and produce more quickly in a low-gravity setting.
Track 3 “Variable Radiation”
Deep space is abuzz with radiation, and the stuff is horrible to the human body over time. B-SURE wants to find out what harm radiation could likewise do to our little feedstock-munching microscopic friends, and what we can do to protect them.
“The B-SURE program is a fundamental study that will explore adapting microbes to space conditions,” said Dr. Anne Cheever, B-SURE program manager.
Lower Cost and More Convenience with Space Microbes
Certainly, we have factories galore down on Earth. But rocketing goods up to space with a space mission is enormously expensive. And what if a space crew is on a lengthy voyage to Mars or the Asteroid Belt? Somewhere that involves months, or maybe years, of travel time? Even the most well-stocked spacecraft will eventually run low.
Far better if the crew can ditch most of this heavy cargo and replace it with fermentation equipment, a freezer full of different cultures of microbes, and bags of feedstocks. As the voyage gets underway, the crew will nourish the microbes with the feedstocks, and each microbe strain will convert the feedstock into a molecule, substance, or material that the humans need.
And through this process of space biomanufacturing, the crew will get the ingredients for creating a whole range of products that they need, on demand and on time. Anything from fuel to plastic components to medicines, motor fluids, and more.
This biomanufacturing capability would be useful for military operations in space, as well; hence the interest from DARPA and the Department of Defense (DoD). When space military forces deploy, they could use microbes as their own on-site supply chains. In particular, biomanufacturing could enable them to easily repair spacecraft systems or replace damaged parts; the bacteria will make plastic, rubber, or other needed materials on demand for the humans to apply as they need.
“There is a critical DoD need for the continued development and expansion of orbital manufacturing to enable and ensure supply chain resiliency, sustained technological superiority, and asset security and repair for current and future operations,” DARPA said in a broad agency announcement.
“DoD currently has no space-based manufacturing capability. All resources or equipment needed for a given mission are manufactured on Earth and shipped to space,” Cheever said. “The B-SURE program is an important first step in addressing fundamental biomanufacturing questions to develop this capability.”
If DARPA’s work pans out, microorganisms may be the beginning of thriving human populations up in space.