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Synthetic Biology and Microbial Fuel Cells: Towards Self-Sustaining Life Support Systems

Principal Investigators: John Hogan, and Michael Flynn

NASA ARC and the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI) are collaborating to investigate the development of advanced Bio-Electrochemical Systems (BESs) for human life support in space. BESs utilize specifically-adapted microorganisms that can either generate electrical power during the metabolism of substrates (Microbial Fuel Cell - MFC), or can conversely utilize electrical current to “drive” microbial metabolism for the production of products (Reverse MFC). BESs possess numerous advantages for space missions, including rapid processing, reduced biomass formation, and energy efficiency. Additionally, the use of advanced Synthetic Biology techniques offers the potential to genetically modify microorganisms to further increase system capability and performance.

The initial goal of this work was to examine technology infusion of BESs for wastewater treatment and other human life support functions. Tasks included:

  • Identification of potential integration scenarios that use BESs to treat space-based wastewaters
  • Investigation of appropriate synthetic biology research and development areas that advance the use of BESs for space
  • Investigation of potential power production efficiency and utilization strategies to determine power offsets and power “self-sustainability”
  • Investigation of BESs as a means to use electrical power to perform biological processing

This work led to additional funding from NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist to continue and expand collaborations with the J. Craig Venter Institute and Stanford University to examine the potential to integrate a Reverse MFC to convert human metabolic carbon dioxide to methane and water for air revitalization and resource recovery. This work is being performed within the NASA Ames Research Center Space Synthetic Biology program. The project is focusing on defining optimal process integration scenarios, and will result in the development of both unique BES reactor hardware and a genetically modified organism designed for optimal carbon dioxide conversion. Additional efforts include developing space-based BES design concepts, integration analyses, increasing system efficiency, and investigating additional BES applications. These combined efforts will leverage NASA’s expertise in space-based wastewater treatment and air revitalization with advanced synthetic biology and BES research and development at the J. Craig Venter Institute and Stanford University to significantly forward BES technology development for both space missions and terrestrial applications.