This week, the International Space Station is getting some new residents: Pseudomonas putida, a strain of plastic-eating bacteria.
The microorganisms are going up into space as part of an experiment that will look at how microbes could be a potential waste management solution—both on Earth and beyond. The experiment will study not only how the microbe’s enzymes can degrade plastic in a harsh environment like outer space, but also how the bacteria can then upcycle that plastic into new material. First, the microbe’s enzymes break down PET, one of the most common types of plastic used in bottles and food packaging. Then, that bacteria can then turn the degraded plastic’s compounds into β-ketoadipic acid, or BKA, a nylon monomer that can be made into fabric or used in existing manufacturing processes.
“Pushing the boundaries on what microbial metabolisms and pathways are capable of . . . is where our interests and our passions lie,” says Raja Dhir, cofounder and co-CEO of microbial sciences company Seed Health, which is involved in the experiment. “It’s a dramatic step forward in challenging microbes and microbial metabolisms first by just removing it from an Earth-like environment.”
For this foray into outer space, SeedLabs is collaborating with the MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Weill Cornell Medicine, and Harvard Medical School.
Along with testing how the microbes perform in a zero-gravity, high UV radiation-environment, the experiment could also be the starting point to exploring a future in which astronauts have a system to recycle their plastic waste and turn it into new materials. “If we want to degrade or reuse plastic on Earth, normally we have these very intense mechanical and chemical processes. You have to have huge machines to make it happen,” says Xin Liu, MIT Space Exploration Initiative Arts Curator. “That is not available in space.” (NREL, one of the collaborators, has been working on large-scale plastic upcycling on Earth for around a decade.)
Some research has also shown that when bacteria are exposed to space conditions, “sometimes it increases the ability for it to produce certain molecules or perform certain pathways,” says Pat Pataranutaporn, a PhD candidate in the MIT Media Lab involved in the experiment. “So maybe if the bacteria that we have been studying on Earth goes to space and comes back, maybe it will retain some of those augmented capabilities.” Going to space could, ultimately, help us better recycle things here on Earth. Studying how the bacteria fare in space also generally helps glean more information about the microbes’ biological makeup, and if they could withstand changing environmental conditions on Earth.
The microbes are going into space on November 22 (weather permitting) aboard SpaceX CRS-26, a resupply mission for the International Space Station. Once there, the experiment is completely automated, following a pre-programmed schedule expected to last about a month. (The researchers will then have to wait for the experiment to come back, on another ISS resupply mission, to study the data.)
The experiment is also an example of collaboration that could expand space research in general. The system that MIT Media Lab developed to house the experiment is an automatic, closed system device that allows for bacteria culturing and data collection without any astronaut resources or human involvement. It’s also modular, allowing for flexibility and changes depending on what a biologist wants. This has given biologists a path to do experiments in space in a way they never could before, and could allow for more biology experiments in space in the future, Liu says. “You don’t need to be an astronaut or study space engineering to do a really cool experiment in space,” Pataranutaporn adds.
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