Is Synthetic Biology The Key to Reaching Mars?

Within the next few decades, a manned mission to Mars will most likely become a reality. The 34 million mile trip will take approximately 916 days or roughly 2.5 years to complete; space agencies in the midst of planning the expedition are budgeting 210 days for travel and another 496 days for an extended vacation on the Red Planet itself.

But this lengthy journey raises some questions of logistics. NASA currently estimates that for every unit mass of payload launched in space, an additional 99 units of mass is needed to support the crew – anything from oxygen and food to medicine and fuel. According to Maine News, this means that the amount of supplies would take up to 99% of the load.

Fortunately, Amor Menezes and Adam Arkin, two scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), might have found a way to shrink the supporting payload, thereby reducing the overall cost of the trip. The solution? Synthetic biology.

The idea, which was proposed in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, suggests using biological processes to turn crew waste, along with Martian soil and minerals into the raw materials needed for the extended stay.

Specifically, in the study, scientists honed in on four target areas: food production, fuel generation, biopolymer synthesis and pharmaceutical manufacture. The results showed that the use of synthetic biological processes could potentially reduce the mass of fuel manufacturing by as much as 56%, the mass of food by 38%, building materials for the habitat by 85% and pharmaceuticals by 100%.

Crew members, for example, could turn CO2 (carbon dioxide) into the methane needed for fuel; microbes can also be used to sustain farming practices and produce pharmaceuticals. Even the raw materials needed for 3D printing could be produced using various minerals found in space.

“Not only does synthetic biology promise to make the travel to extraterrestrial locations more practical and bearable, it could also be transformative once explorers arrive at their destination,” says Adam Arkin.

“During flight, the ability to augment fuel and other energy needs, to provide small amounts of needed materials, plus renewable, nutritional and taste-engineered food, and drugs-on-demand can save costs and increase astronaut health and welfare.”

Of course, this idea is still in the experimental stage. Because the concept of synthetic biology for space applications is very new, scientists must conduct many more tests before this strategy is implemented.

“We’ve got a long way to go since experimental proof-of-concept work in synthetic biology for space applications is just beginning, but long-duration manned missions are also a ways off,” says Menezes.