" High value-added chemicals and BIoreSIns from alGae biorefineries produced from CO2 provided by industrial emissions "

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How to manufacture plastics when urine space

The Mars One mission to the red planet scheduled for 2024 presents a web of complications for the taskforce operating it, as well as for the future astronauts who will be saying farewell to planet Earth to found a new human colony.

× Astronaut

It may sound like science fiction, but the practicalities of real life remain. After carefully selecting the individuals who will be Mars One astronauts and colony founders, the experts are tasked with making the unusual circumstances of their mission workable.

Mars One does not have room for tonnes of materials for manufacturing parts and tools on board for spares and repairs, but researchers have developed a way of turning human waste into plastic.

The scientists presented their results at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS), which use human waste including urine to make polymers and nutritional supplements.

"If astronauts are going to make journeys that span several years, we'll need to find a way to reuse and recycle everything they bring with them," said Mark A. Blenner, PhD. "Atom economy will become really important.

"Having a biological system that astronauts can awaken from a dormant state to start producing what they need, when they need it, is the motivation for our project."

Blenner's biological system includes a variety of strains of the yeast yarrowia lipolytica. These organisms require both nitrogen and carbon to grow. Blenner's team discovered that the yeast can obtain their nitrogen from urine. Meanwhile, the yeast obtain their carbon from CO2, which could come from astronauts' exhaled breath, or from the Martian atmosphere. But to use CO2, the yeast require a middleman to "fix" the carbon into a form they can ingest. For this purpose, the yeast rely on photosynthetic cyanobacteria or algae provided by the researchers.

One of the yeast strains produces omega-3 fatty acids, which contribute to heart, eye and brain health. Another strain has been engineered to churn out monomers and link them to make polyester, which could then be used in a 3D printer to generate new plastic parts. Blenner's team is continuing to engineer this yeast strain to produce a variety of monomers that can be polymerized into different types of polyesters with a range of properties.

For now, the engineered yeast strains can produce only small amounts of polyesters or nutrients, but the research programme hopes to boost it.

Blenner's group is not the only one working on producing nutrients from yeast, but it believes it is the only one that is engineering yeast for optimised polymer production in this way.

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This project has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement n° [613680].

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