Jul 20, 2021

Does a billionaire space race really help humankind?

A handful of tourists are taking joy rides to space, but humanity’s true prospects for thriving on- and off-planet depend on unlocking the microbial factories all around us.

Astronaut selfie

On July 11, billionaire Richard Branson flew to the edge of space in Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity, the first person to travel into space on their own rocket. And today, just nine days later, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos rocketed to space on his own spacecraft, the New Shepard, in what he says is an important step in “opening the promise of space to all.” All of this is in addition to Elon Musk’s ambitions for taking hundreds of us to Mars aboard SpaceX’s Starship, starting in 2026. The goal: making life multiplanetary.

There are some reasons to believe that a billionaire space race might benefit humanity, as well as legitimate ethical questions about the uber-rich playing astronaut while so many on Earth lack basic human needs like food, shelter, and medicine. Whether you’re waitlisted for Mars or you plan to go down with Spaceship Earth, here’s a different angle on space tourism that should excite us all: It may help catalyze a revolution in biotechnology that enriches humankind both here on Earth and out there among the stars.

Biotech for on- and off-planet thriving

Until now, the space race has focused on the transportation issue — designing and building rockets to take us where we want to go. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is staying out in space. As explorers go farther and stay longer, supply missions from Earth will become increasingly unsustainable, and outposts will need to become self-sufficient. Explorers will need to supply themselves with the very same list of basic human needs that most of us here on Earth take for granted: food, shelter, and medicine.  

Simply put, living in space needs to be sustainable in the same way living on Earth does. The kinds of solutions needed to survive on Mars are the same needed to thrive on Earth, and biology is the most promising technology platform to achieve them.

Biology: The ultimate platform technology

Here’s what makes biology so great for space and earth alike: It’s good at both designing and making things, and it’s very portable.

As a design platform, nature has been evolving solutions to biological problems for about 4 billion years. Humans have only just begun to explore the incredibly diverse universe of biomolecules that nature offers. Recent advances in the field of metagenomics are beginning to give us a window into the >99% of molecular diversity that remains hidden in the soil beneath our very feet. Whether you seek an infectious disease treatment or a Kevlar-like material, nature has probably made it before. 

As a manufacturing platform, biology’s method of choice is fermentation. The same age-old process by which microbes convert sugar into everything from yogurt to wine can be applied to make antibiotics, chemical polymers, and more. Fermentation is well-suited to space because it relies on the same equipment whether you’re making food, medicine, or polymers. The DNA in fermentation microbes can be thought of as programmable matter. Scientists on Earth could send instructions to DNA synthesizers in space, which could in turn create the microbes to produce chemicals and materials whose need might never have been anticipated. As Alexander Titus puts it, synthetic biology is the functional equivalent of teleporting matter to space.

Space tech for our down-to-earth needs

Fortunately, the same technology that can make food, medicine, and materials for space travelers could be widely applied to sustainably create these products on Earth. 

In food, companies like Air Protein, Orbital Farm, and NovoNutrients are using a 1960s NASA technology to make food out of thin air. It involves the use of hydrogenotrophs — microbes attracted to hydrogen — to convert CO2 in the atmosphere into a nutritious food source. That same microbe technology could not only feed millions of hungry people down here on Earth, but also hold the key to a more carbon neutral food supply.

In medicine, NASA has been developing the means to make food and vitamins in space. The goal is to make it there, not take it there. NASA’s BioNutrients project is testing an in-space nutrient production method that uses genetically-engineered baker’s yeast to produce antioxidants such as beta carotene and zeaxanthin, typically found in carrots, bell peppers, and other vegetables. To create the nutrients, astronauts add water, mix, and warm. The first batch of “BioNutrient” packs arrived at the International Space Station in April 2019, and the project’s five-year experiment is well underway. 

And in materials, researchers recently reported combining synthetic biology and 3-D printing to produce materials in space. Cells of fungi and bacteria can be reprogrammed with synthetic DNA to produce materials like bioplastics, which can then be fed into 3-D printers to manufacture items the astronauts may need during spaceflight, whether it’s hardware, shelter materials, or medical devices. Researchers are even seeking inspiration from the amateur DIY Bio community, which has been described as “pioneers at rapid prototyping and developing technologies with limited resources.” These efforts may be the first step toward even more ambitious goals like printing human organs in space.

Biomanufactory on Mars

A depiction of a ‘biomanufactory’ on Mars, as envisioned by the NASA CUBES project. Artwork by Davian Ho, published in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Science.

 The race to space — and to get Spaceship Earth in ship-shape

In space, sustainability is not optional: It is the only means of providing for humans’ long-term needs. Here on Spaceship Earth, the temperature in the crew cabin is rising, even as our resources shrink and our needs grow. The calls to urgently transition from conventional manufacturing to more sustainable, bio-based processes may seem alarmist to some. Yet, this is our one and only home planet, and there is no resupply ship en route. If humankind is to thrive, a transition to biofacturing for food, medicine, and materials will become increasingly urgent, and increasingly inevitable. As in space, sustainability on Earth is not optional.

Stepping back a bit, today’s billionaire space race — like the space race of the 1960s — is in large part about inspiration. And like the first space race, our current quest to explore the stars may well lead to discoveries and technologies that are not just relevant but absolutely vital to life right here on our home planet.

Learn more about biofacturing, the galaxies of biological wisdom in a teaspoon of soil, and how you can change the world as part of the Zymergen team.

Many thanks to Asif Rahman and Vytas SunSpiral for technical input on this story.

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