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Ames boss outlines biotech future

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NASA's Ames Research Center may be synonymous with satellites and propulsion systems, but the agency is also involved in developing genetic organisms tailored to make the lives of astronauts – and maybe everyone else – a little easier.

"One area I'm really excited about is synthetic biology," Dr. S. Pete Worden, the Center's director, told The Register. "We're convinced that if people go into space for long periods of time they will need some sort of self-replicating machine, and the only ones we know of are biological."

NASA is working closely with Craig Venter, who created the first self-replicating semi-synthetic bacterial cell in 2010, and who was in the vanguard of mapping the human genome. Venter is working with NASA to develop programmed microbes that have been hacked to be much more efficient than their current forms, and which can be used in space exploration.

One early application will be microbes that can be used to purify air and water. Currently scrubbing air and cleaning water on the International Space Station is done with complex and costly chemical filters, but biological filtering could be more efficient, cleaner, and less expensive, considering the cost of carting stuff out of the gravity well.

"Another area is bioelectronics, which we're very excited about," Worden said. "We think we can program, and there are some microbes that already do this, to directly use electrical energy to power their metabolism. You could have an air purifier that is turned on by electricity."

Another aim is to develop a microbe that can be put in an implantable device that could function as a replacement pancreas or insulin pump. The initial work to develop these was done by a NASA scientist at Ames, and as well as space travel, such an invention would have huge value here on earth.

Finally, the backroom boffins at Ames are working on building microbes that could grow by extracting material from the surface of Mars or other planetary bodies. Ideally, he said, you'd want a device that can be fed Martian dirt and would produce something that tastes like steak, or at least provides nutrition.

The idea of these kinds of biological systems isn't new, but the speed of progress is amazing – or concerning, depending on how paranoid you are. Worden predicted some of these specimens will be created in the next decade, and maybe sooner.

Related to all this is Ames' focus on the burgeoning science of space medicine. As a species, we are not evolved for space flight or zero G, and the human body begins to break down after a few months in orbit unless regular exercise is taken. Russian astronauts on the defunct Mir platform discovered that even with exercise, muscular atrophy caused serious problems.

But it's more complicated than that. NASA has discovered that certain pathogens are more virulent in space, for reasons not yet understood, and different genes are turned on and off for humans in orbit. If humanity is ever to leave Earth and venture out on long trip, space medicine needs to be developed to make sure the trip doesn't kill them. ®

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