Is Pee A Key For Successful Trips To Mars?

Evrard Martin
Août 25, 2017

Researchers are studying how to repurpose these molecules and convert them into products the astronauts need, such as polyesters and nutrients. Now what the scientists are doing is that they use human waste into plastic nutrients while they are moving in space.

"If astronauts are going to make journeys that span several years, we'll need to find a way to reuse and recycle everything they bring with them", Mark A. Blenner, an assistant professor at Clemson's College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said in a release.

The solution lies in part with the astronauts themselves, who will constantly generate waste from breathing, eating and using materials.

Unlike people on Earth, Blenner said, spacefarers wouold not want to throw any waste molecules away. Assuming you have the vehicle, fuel, correct environment, and oxygen required, you still need to make sure that your human passengers are fed, have access to water, and have the tools necessary to complete whatever tasks they are issued. In particular, he said this could be very useful in situations where an astronaut has lost a tool or a piece of equipment that they need.

The Clemson team is focusing on a strain of yeast called Yarrowia lipolytica, which requires both nitrogen and carbon to grow.

Researchers discovered that the yeast can obtain their nitrogen from urea in untreated urine. And the Carbon dioxide can get by the exhaled breath of the astronauts. But to use CO2, the yeast require a middleman to "fix" the carbon into a form they can ingest.

For now, the engineered yeast strains can produce only small amounts of polyesters, but the scientists are working on boosting output.

This yeast can also be genetically engineered to produce monomers, the basic building blocks of polymers that could be used by 3D printers to create new tools on the spacecraft or on Mars, reports Becky Ferreira of Motherboard. Blenner's team is continuing to engineer this yeast strain to produce a variety of monomers that can be polymerized into different types of polyesters with a range of properties. He says that these products could be used as nutritional supplements for astronauts, as they've been implicated in preventing bone loss and maintaining cardiovascular and ocular health, but don't have a long enough shelf life for adequate supplies to be brought from Earth. For example, fish raised via aquaculture need to be given omega-3 fatty acid supplements, which could be produced by Blenner's yeast strains.

Whatever their approach, these researchers are all adding to the body of knowledge about Y. lipolytica, which has been studied much less than, say, the yeast used in beer production. "Every new organism has some amount of quirkiness that you have to focus on and understand better". Reporters may check-in at the press center, Room 154A, or watch live on YouTube http://bit.ly/ACSLive_DC.

Blenner's work was supported by an Early Career Faculty grant from NASA's Space Technology Research Grants Program. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

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