The ground in space
On Earth, complex communities of microorganisms perform key functions in the soil, including cycling carbon and other nutrients and supporting plant growth. DynaMoS examines how microgravity affects metabolic interactions in soil microbe communities. This research focuses on the microbial communities that break down chitin, a natural carbon polymer on Earth.
“Soil microorganisms perform beneficial functions that are essential for life on our planet,” says lead researcher Janet K. Jansson, chief scientist and laboratory researcher at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. “To harness these beneficial activities for future space missions, we need to better understand how conditions in space, such as microgravity and radiation, influence these microbes and the beneficial functions they provide. Perhaps in the future we will use beneficial soil microbes to enhance crop growth on the lunar surface.
A better understanding of the function of soil microorganism communities could also reveal ways to optimize these communities to support agricultural production on Earth.
Genes, not cells
Cell-free technology is a platform for producing proteins without specialized equipment from live cells that need to be cultured. Genes in space-9, sponsored by the ISS National Lab, demonstrates cell-free protein production in microgravity and evaluates two cell-free biosensors capable of detecting specific target molecules. This technology could provide a simple, portable, and inexpensive tool for medical diagnostics, on-demand production of drugs and vaccines, and environmental monitoring on future space missions.
“Biosensors are a class of synthetic biology tools with immense potential for spaceflight applications in contaminant detection, environmental monitoring and point-of-care diagnostics,” said Selin Kocalar, student winner of Genes in Space 2021. “This investigation aims to validate their use on board the space station. If successful, Genes in Space-9 will lay the foundation for downstream applications of biosensors for space exploration and remote environments. limited resources on Earth.
genes in space, an annual research competition, challenges students in grades 7-12 to design DNA experiments to be conducted on the space station. The program has launched eight investigations so far, and some have resulted in publications deepening our knowledge of genetic experiments through space research, including the first experiment to use CRISPR technology in microgravity in 2019.
Biopolymer research for in situ capabilities examines how microgravity affects the process of creating an alternative to concrete made from organic material and in-place materials such as lunar or Martian dust, known as biopolymer soil composite (BPC). Using the resources available at the construction site increases the mass of the construction material and therefore the amount of armor.
“Astronauts on the Moon and Mars will need habitats that provide radiation shielding, but transporting large quantities of conventional building materials from Earth is logistically and financially impossible,” said Laywood Fayne, a member of the ‘crew. “Our team of students, led by Michael Lepech of Stanford University’s Blume Earthquake Engineering Center, is investigating a way to convert regolith in these environments into a concrete-like material by mixing water and a known protein as bovine serum albumin.”
This material hardens as water evaporates, a process affected by gravity, says team co-lead James Wall. “Our project is to make six bricks in microgravity to compare to bricks made on Earth at 1g and less than 1g,” says Wall. “We will study the number and orientations of protein bridges, compressive strength and porosity. Our findings could help determine how these bricks might form on the Moon and Mars.
PCBs could also offer a concrete, environmentally friendly alternative for making structures on Earth. In 2018, concrete production accounted for 8% of global carbon emissions. PCB material emits zero carbon emissions and can be made from readily available local resources, which also simplifies supply chains. This experiment is part of the NASA Student Payload Opportunity with Citizen Science (SPOC), which offers students enrolled in institutions of higher learning the opportunity to design and build an experiment to fly to and from the International Space Station.