Welcome to the new NASA website. We’re working to continuously improve your web experience. If you don't find what you are looking for, give feedback.

Suggested Searches

8 min read

What is BioNutrients?

A biology experiment called BioNutrients is testing a way to use microorganisms to produce nutrients – off Earth and on demand – that will be critical for human health in space.

Close up of purple-gloved hands holding a BioNutrients production pack.
For the BioNutrients experiment, the specially engineered yeast and its powdered food source are held in the container at the left. Its lid holds a membrane that allows carbon dioxide from the yeast to escape. The clear tube at right protects another filter system leading into the compartment with the microorganisms. To activate the yeast and begin the experiment, astronauts on board the space station will inject water through the filter, making it sterile. The water will dissolve the nutrient powder and the yeast will grow and multiply in this liquid environment, producing an important nutrient for human health.
NASA/Dominic Hart

Sailors might have avoided scurvy if NASA had been around in the age of exploration on the high seas. The condition is caused by a vitamin C deficiency, and many people died from spending months at sea without fresh fruits and vegetables. In the age of exploration into deep space, astronauts, too, will need a way to get the right nutrition. Planning ways to supply food for a multi-year mission on the Moon or Mars may require making food and nutrients in space. NASA scientists are testing an early version of a potential solution: get microorganisms to produce vital nutrients so that, whenever they’re needed, astronauts can drink them down. The same kind of system designed for space could also help provide nutrition for people in remote areas of our planet.

Microbial Nutrient Factories

With an experiment called BioNutrients, astronauts aboard the International Space Station will help test a new system over the course of five years. It was developed by scientists at NASA’s Ames Research Center, in California’s Silicon Valley, using this strategy: take a safe organism already present in our food (in this case, baker’s yeast), modify it so that it produces an essential nutrient, and build the right hardware to let astronauts grow the yeast in space. Like tiny living factories, the microorganisms will go about making the desired product. The nutrients that the yeast will produce in this experiment are called beta carotene and zeaxanthin. These are antioxidants usually found in vegetables, and they’re critical for keeping our eyes healthy.

Although astronauts on the space station will not consume anything for the BioNutrients experiment, they will conduct multiple rounds of tests on the system. For each test, they’ll add sterile water to a mixture of dehydrated yeast and its powdered food source, mix well and keep the packet warm for 48 hours. Then, they’ll freeze it to be analyzed later, back on Earth. NASA scientists will check how the system performed, including how much yeast grew in the packets and how much nutrient the experiment produced.

Purple-gloved hands seen pouring white powder from a small glass jar into a round plastic container.
The microorganisms at the heart of the BioNutrients experiment and their powdered food source (shown here) are loaded into the hardware for spaceflight using sterile techniques. Astronauts on the International Space Station will help test the BioNutrients system’s ability to use yeast cells as tiny factories to produce essential nutrients for human health.
NASA/Dominic Hart

Essential (Nutrients) for Exploration

An on-demand nutrient production system like this will be vital for human exploration, because it may not be possible to provide complete nutrition from stored foods during a multi-year mission. What’s more, even with a supply of nutritional supplements, many nutrients have a limited shelf life. Some things, like vitamins, also just work better in their fresh form than in a processed tablet.

Space station crew members will perform tests on both yeast types periodically over the course of this initial experiment. This will allow scientists to check how long their specially engineered yeast stays good on the shelf and able to churn out fresh nutrients that humans will need to stay healthy in space.

The BioNutrients system will test two types of yeast with different “lifestyles” in the nutrient-production packets. One makes spores, a dormant form of the organism, as part of its lifecycle. The yeast should stay stable in this form for five years, giving it a reasonable expiration date for use during long-term missions on the Moon or to the surface of Mars. The other type does not make spores, and so may have a shorter shelf life. However, this type is interesting for other reasons. People are already eating this same yeast in probiotic supplements on the market today. And there are many more yeast species of this type available to scientists for potential use in future nutrient production systems, so understanding how they work could be important for the research.

As an additional part of the BioNutrients investigation, the researchers are studying the “shelf life” of other types of microbes — different from the two types of yeast tested in the production packets — to track how well the various organisms function during the five-year span in space, and what genetic features allow them to survive for the long haul. Samples of these specially prepared biomanufacturing and probiotic microorganisms are stored on the station and periodically returned to Earth for analysis.

Two women in safety glasses and lab coats. One is wearing purple gloves and working with hardware inside a sterile cabinet.
Researchers Natalie Ball (left) and Hiromi Kagawa (right) assemble the BioNutrients hardware in preparation for an experiment aboard the space station. Kagawa is attaching a one-way valve that will be connected to a filter. When astronaut crew members inject water into the hardware through this filter, it will be sterilized before rehydrating the experiment’s microorganisms and allowing them to grow.
NASA/Dominic Hart


The BioNutrients-2 investigation launched to the space station aboard SpaceX’s CRS-26 mission on Nov. 26, 2022. This phase of the study builds on early results from BioNutrients-1 and incorporates several new features. The overall goal is to test an on-demand system to produce specific amounts of key nutrients using minimal equipment.

BioNutrients-2 broadens the types of microorganism being tested. It uses the same two yeast strains used in BioNutrients-1 and adds four new types. This includes two microorganisms that produce yogurt, one that produces a fermented milk product known as kefir, and another type of yeast specially prepared to produce follistatin, a protein linked to maintaining muscle mass.

The entire range of microorganism types will be tested in a BioNutrients-2’s new hardware. The system uses lightweight, flexible bags – a form factor comparable to existing crew food products – rather than the rigid containers being tested for BioNutrients-1. This change reduces the mass and the volume of the system, offering advantages for long duration spaceflight when volume and mass are limited.

Two experiment runs are planned for each sample type: the first at approximately 30-60 days after launch, and the second at about six months. Each run involves a crew member retrieving four bags of a given sample type, adding water, and agitating the bags to mix the contents. The crew will place the bags in an incubator to promote growth. At the end of the run, the crew will remove the bags from the incubator and freeze them. The bags will be returned to Earth, still frozen, for analysis.

Two men hold experiment hardware, squinting as they precisely apply tiny labels.
BioNutrients’ principal investigator John Hogan (left) and operations lead Kevin Sims (right) apply labels and inspect assembled nutrient production packs ahead of launch to the space station. The tiny labels require precise alignment: the markings on them will help the crew know if they need to tighten the lid before rehydrating the microorganisms inside, ensuring they grow in sterile conditions.
NASA/Dominic Hart

Making Molecules and Medicines in Remote Places

This technology NASA is developing for future astronauts could also be used by people living in remote areas on Earth today. Results from the study will tell NASA scientists a lot about how to produce other molecules that will be critical for human health in space, including medicines for treating various ailments. Promising research is under way now to use microbes in a range of space applications. By developing microorganisms that can withstand long periods of inactivity and be revived successfully, BioNutrients is also taking steps toward making that future a reality.


  • April 2019 – The BioNutrients experiment launched to the International Space Station aboard Northrop Grumman’s 11th commercial resupply services mission
  • June 2019 – An experiment run of the BioNutrients packs in space completed by Canadian Space Agency astronaut David Saint-Jacques.
  • June 2019 – Samples returned to Earth aboard SpaceX’s 17th commercial resupply services mission.
  • August 2019 – Samples returned to Earth aboard SpaceX’s 18th commercial resupply services mission.
  • January 2020 – Samples returned to Earth aboard SpaceX’s 19th commercial resupply services mission.
  • January 2020 – An experiment run of the BioNutrients packs in space completed by NASA astronaut Andrew Morgan.
  • April 2020 – Samples returned to Earth aboard SpaceX’s 20th commercial resupply services mission.
  • January 2021 – Samples returned to Earth aboard SpaceX’s 21st commercial resupply services mission.
  • January 2021 – An experiment run of the BioNutrients packs in space completed by NASA astronaut Shannon Walker.
  • July 2021 – Samples returned to Earth aboard SpaceX’s 22nd commercial resupply services mission.
  • January 2022 – Samples returned to Earth aboard SpaceX’s 24th commercial resupply services mission.
  • February 2022 – An experiment run of the BioNutrients packs in space completed by NASA astronaut Thomas Marshburn.
  • August 2022 – BioNutrients-1 samples returned to Earth aboard SpaceX’s 25th commercial resupply services mission.
  • November 2022 – The BioNutrients-2 experiment launched to the station aboard SpaceX’s 26th commercial resupply services mission.


BioNutrients was developed by NASA Ames. The Game Changing Development program within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate manages the project, which is part of a larger synthetic biology portfolio. Additional support is provided by Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate as part of Exploration Capabilities. The project was previously funded by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems program within the Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate.

Learn more:

For researchers:

For news media: 

Members of the news media interested in covering this topic should reach out to the NASA Ames newsroom.

Author: Abby Tabor, NASA’s Ames Research Center