Star Trek meets ET: (synthetic) biology as an enabling technology for space exploration

Synthetic biology – the design and construction of new biological parts and systems and the redesign of existing ones for useful purposes – is transforming fields from fuels to pharmaceuticals and beyond. Our lab has pioneered the potential of synthetic…

Star Trek meets ET: (synthetic) biology as an enabling technology for space exploration

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Synthetic biology – the design and construction of new biological parts and systems and the redesign of existing ones for useful purposes – is transforming fields from fuels to pharmaceuticals and beyond. Our lab has pioneered the potential of synthetic biology to revolutionize two areas of interest to NASA: astrobiology and as an enabling tool for exploration. Synthetic biology is allowing us to answer whether the evolutionary narrative that has played out on planet Earth is likely to have been unique or universal. For example, can we create organisms that expand the envelope for life, for example, radiation resistance? For exploration, we will rely increasingly on biologically-provided life support, as we have throughout our evolutionary history. But once life itself is seen as an enabling technology, we can do so much more. What about the exploration platforms themselves? Using fungi to build structures off planet? Using peptides to recycle metals from integrated circuits and provide the raw materials to build new structures in space? Building materials? Using DNA as a scaffold to create wires a atom or two in thickness? Producing pharmaceuticals and other small molecules in small quantities, on demand? Finally, Will this technology work in space? The PowerCell payload on the DLR EuCROPIS mission is designed to do just that.

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