Feeds

NASA planning delicious Martian microbe menu

Ames boss outlines biotech future

New hybrid storage solutions

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. ®

Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops

More from The Register

next story
Boffins say they've got Lithium batteries the wrong way around
Surprises at the nano-scale mean our ideas about how they charge could be all wrong
Thought that last dinosaur was BIG? This one's bloody ENORMOUS
Weighed several adult elephants, contend boffins
Europe prepares to INVADE comet: Rosetta landing site chosen
No word yet on whether backup site is labelled 'K'
City hidden beneath England's Stonehenge had HUMAN ABATTOIR. And a pub
Boozed-up ancients drank beer before tearing corpses apart
'Duck face' selfie in SPAAAACE: Rosetta's snap with bird comet
Probe prepares to make first landing on fast-moving rock
Archaeologists and robots on hunt for more Antikythera pieces
How much of the world's oldest computer can they find?
prev story

Whitepapers

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk
A single remote control platform for user support is be key to providing an efficient helpdesk. Retain full control over the way in which screen and keystroke data is transmitted.
Top 5 reasons to deploy VMware with Tegile
Data demand and the rise of virtualization is challenging IT teams to deliver storage performance, scalability and capacity that can keep up, while maximizing efficiency.
Reg Reader Research: SaaS based Email and Office Productivity Tools
Read this Reg reader report which provides advice and guidance for SMBs towards the use of SaaS based email and Office productivity tools.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.
Secure remote control for conventional and virtual desktops
Balancing user privacy and privileged access, in accordance with compliance frameworks and legislation. Evaluating any potential remote control choice.