Biological solutions for space exploration
New biotechnologies for sustainable space exploration
Space exploration has demonstrated to be an essential driver for scientific and technological innovations, unlocking cutting-edge research and technologies, with evident benefits for Earth. Notorious examples include GPS and satellites, solar panels, water‐purification systems, and biomedical technologies. The next frontier of space exploration involves the establishment of a permanent human presence in space, including on other planetary bodies outside of Earth (e.g., the Moon and Mars).
Dr Rosa Santomartino (Leverhulme Research Fellow, School of Physics) investigates the development of microbial solutions for a more sustainable space exploration. Self-sustaining technologies are unanimously recognized as mandatory for the future of space exploration, not only to minimize the costs of resources resupply from Earth, but also for the ethical considerations associated with space waste generated by the human presence. In an environment with limited resources such as space, recycling and upcycling of materials need to be highly efficient. The development of circular regenerative systems, particularly those including biological systems, is considered the best option to reach this goal. However, working toward sustainable space exploration has high potential for tackling terrestrial environmental issues, too.
An example could come from the study of plastic biodegrading microbes. Since their invention, plastics have become indispensable to our everyday life. When used indiscriminately and non-properly disposed or recycled, plastic breaks apart in smaller fragments which accumulate in soils, oceans and even rocks, posing a serious threat to ecosystems. Nature is, however, very resilient, and several microorganisms are evolving mechanisms to degrade microplastics and use them as nutrient source. This process, called plastic biodegradation, offers exciting pathways towards a circular bioeconomy and a promising solution to the global plastic waste crisis. Nevertheless, the science around the topic is still young.
Owing to characteristics such as durability and adaptability, plastics play a key role also in space. Biological regenerative systems for space applications are being designed to allow recycling of food, water and gases, but other types of waste materials, for instance plastics or electronic waste, could also be recycled to reclaim useful elements, further enhancing the circularity of space settlements. A promising yet unexplored solution is plastic-biodegrading microorganisms. However, microorganisms respond unpredictably to space conditions (e.g., microgravity or radiations), and their behaviour needs to be carefully characterized, in order to improve efficiency and reduce risks.
In an environment with limited resources such as space, recycling and upcycling of materials need to be highly efficient.
Dr Santomartino studies the cellular and molecular mechanisms of microbe-mediated plastic biodegradation under terrestrial and extraterrestrial conditions, which will be pivotal to establish future biotechnologies. The most efficient plastic degrading microorganisms are currently being selected, using both microbial culture collections and isolation of novel species from plastic-polluted Scottish environments. A major focus will be the identification of differences exhibited in space compared to Earth conditions, to inform future biotechnological and synthetic biology approaches. By studying these mechanisms, we aim to address a crucial environmental issue on Earth and provide tools to enhance the sustainability of space exploration.