Astrobiotechnology: Molecular steps towards the boundaries of Space exploration
Written by Andrea Camera, Ana Sofia Mota, Christos Tsagkaris
The landing of man to the moon was reported as a small step for an individual and a great step for humanity. From then on many steps have been noted in Space Research and Exploration (SRE). Astrobiotechnology, a relatively new branch of biotechnology developed in the frame and for the sake of SRE is a field where molecular steps mark new endeavours and pave the way to new paths. (NASA, 2018, NASA, 2019)
Biotechnology can be roughly defined as the exploitation of biological processes and especially the genetic manipulation of microorganisms for environmental, biomedical and industrial purposes. Combining a wide range of applications with minimal size equipment classical and novel methods of biotechnology have already been used for SRE. From recycling waste liquids for the International Space Station (ISS) crew to detecting biomolecules on meteorites, biotechnology has displayed a considerable potential. Currently, 557 experiments about biotechnology and biology are conducted in 40 facilities according to the NASA research database. (Steele et al, 2002)
The existing astrobiotech applications and the ongoing research in this field can play an important role in many disciplines. In this article we will go through them addressing astrobiotech in the EU context.
Astrobiotech for Space Exploration:
It is possible to identify some fields related to space exploration in which modern biotechnology techniques play a key role:
- Biomedical studies to control and reduce space-related stressors on living systems in order to assist space exploration. Since space is a really harmful environment for terrestrial life, is it necessary to develop techniques that are able to reduce space-related stressors such as microgravity, radiation, isolation and confinement In order to develop these techniques, a deep understanding of the biological mechanisms that underlie the disruption of organismal, tissue and cellular homeostasis is required. Numerous experiments concerning different biological systems have been performed, both ground-based and in-space. As far as in-space research is concerned, modern biotechnology is able to deliver instrument miniaturization and real-time data analysis, two aspects that are crucial in space: space and weight are limited and spacecraft re-entry on Earth is detrimental for biological-sample integrity. (Karouia et al, 2017).
- Biology for life support (such as the “MEliSSA” project) and in-situ resource utilization. These techniques will use microorganism populations re-engineered to execute particular functions. These biological systems have to be validated, monitored during the whole mission, for example, to assess their performance and stability and high-throughput will be able to provide reliable information in a brief amount of time.
- Planetary protection. Sensitive techniques such as PCR, gene expression or proteomics measurements that are able to identify and to monitor potential terrestrial biological contaminants for any mission aimed at the search for life.
- Basic astrobiology research, to study the limits of life in space, and possible evolution in other environments. Can life exist beyond Earth?
Research applications of Astrobiotech:
Modern biotechnology allows high-throughput “omics” technologies for analysis of biological samples, these techniques span across Genomics, Transcriptomics, Proteomics and Metabolomics.
High-throughput biotechnology techniques allow researchers, technicians and aerospace operators to carry out measurements in-situ, overcoming multiple limitations of post-flight sample analysis. This provides several advantages such as the possibility of real-time monitoring of the biological environment and increased accuracy of the sampled data.
It’s possible to cite several instruments and missions for in-space research. As an example, Columbus laboratory is the European Space Agency (ESA)’s largest single contribution to the ISS and the first permanent European research facility in space. The research projects that can be performed concern several scientific topics, among which are astrobiology and space-physiology. Biolab, one of the five internal payloads of the Columbus Module supports biological experiments on micro-organisms, cells, tissue cultures, small plants and small invertebrates. (Columbus laboratory, 2019)
Microbial Detection in Air System for Space (MiDASS) is an instrument being developed by the ESA and bioMérieux S.A. for in-situ detection of microbial contamination. The purpose is to use it on the ISS. This system allows pathogen detection on air, surface and water samples taken on the spacecraft. This instrument is made of two sections, one for automated sample preparation, the other one for amplification and in situ detection of bacterial and fungal contaminants. It is based on real-time nucleic acid sequence-based amplification and molecular beacon detection technology.
WetLab-2 allows quantitative gene expression analysis via RT-qPCR, this new NASA initiative is made to perform on-orbit analysis of samples from many organisms, including humans. (Biolab, 2019)
The potential of Astrobiotech:
Space biotechnology is a field aimed at applying tools of modern biology to advance space exploration (Astrobiotechnology, 2019). Astrobiotechnology is focused on identifying technology gaps for longer missions and totransition methodologies and technologies from earth-based experiments to other planets, highlighting instrument technologies and sample handling (Fernandez C, 2019).
Future long-term missions in space will require a significant amount of food, water and oxygen in order to respond to the crew’s necessities. For a Mars mission, it would be approximately 30 tons, a quantity of mass not supported by the available launch systems. Besides, each kilo of food launched to the International Space Station costs about 10000$. The final goal is to be completely independent without relying on any supplies from Earth and biotechnology is the solution to satisfy the needs of long-term space missions (NASA, 2019)
Limitations and considerations:
Nevertheless, research-and-development space biotechnology is highly expensive. Therefore, it is necessary to define which technologies are the most valuable and present the best cost-benefit relation, in order to determine which ones should be developed first and how. 3D-printing might enable astronauts to produce a wide variety of tools and even biological materials such as human tissue on board. But the main advances rely on the “omics” techniques: amplification and sequencing DNA, and measuring levels of RNA transcripts, proteins and metabolites in a cell. The development of in-situ data analysis capabilities is an alternative to the traditional paradigm of post-flight analysis which offers advantages, such as reduced concerns about sample integrity, as it is not necessary to bring samples back to Earth. However, not all data can be analysed on board (Fernandez C, 2019).
In the last years, several applications of biotechnology in space have been accomplished. Genetic engineering technology is already being used in order to grow plants to ensure food supply. “MELiSSA” is an implemented life support system which is designed to permit the recycling of approximately 100% of the wastes. The benefits are not limited to space exploration. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are using the International Space Station US Laboratory to conduct experiments regarding protein crystallization to develop immunotherapy drugs and to test new technologies for assessing cellular function to improve evaluation of drug effectiveness and safety ( ISS US National Laboratory, 2019).
Astrobiotech in Europe:
An interest in astrobiotechnology has also been noted in Europe. The Horizon 2020 aims to “foster a cost-effective and innovative Space industry and research community”. EU policy and societal needs are expected to be addressed through the Space sector advances. Astrobiotechnology belongs to this scheme and relevant projects will be accordingly funded as long as they comply with such needs. According to official EU sources, 30 million euros were available back in 2014-2015 in the frame of Horizon funding. (European Commission, 2019) Moreover, astrobiotechnology is supported by ESA Business Application, a scheme in which ESA offers financial assistance, partnership and technical and commercial guidance to any company or organization residing in ESA member states. Projects may be supported at any stage, from the initial design to their implementation. It appears that initiatives in astrobiotechnology are welcome from any group of people – regardless if it is a renowned company, a startup, a scientific group or a mere NGO – and at any stage. (ESA, 2019)
Last but not least, EU and ESA member states students are encouraged to work on astrobiotechnology as part of their thesis. Throughout the last years, ESA has issued programmes such as “Fly your Thesis”, providing young researchers and their supporting academia the chance to simulate their experiment in microgravity conditions. Being endorsed by ESA, such initiatives not only receive valuable feedback, but are also communicated to industry and stakeholders, promoting collaboration between academia and industry. Although such collaborations are debatable, EU policy-making can guarantee the sustainability of these partnerships and their development in the frame of societal policy and human rights. (ESA, n.d.)
The involvement of the EU in promoting biotechnology and R&D in general in Space is beneficial for the EU itself at the same time. Challenging European policy issues such as the Brexit or the so called division between the EU North and South countries can be addressed in this context. The contribution of EU institutions to the sector could be an inhibiting factor for Brexit whereas the equal participation of research groups from Italy, Greece or Portugal and Germany or Denmark inspires mutual respect to the scientific communities of member states. In a broader sense, providing that the collaboration for SRE is expanded to partner states to the EU, the integration of Eastern Europe, Mediterranean partners and Western Balkans to the EU can be literally skyrocketed. (Sigalas E, 2017)
The investment in space biotechnology will require facilities for long-term, controlled culture growth and for storing samples. Providing researchers with the right instruments and capacities paves the way for potential significant discoveries in space biology. It may lead to not only to the engineering of novel microorganisms that will be able to survive in harsh and generate or reprocess valuable resources, but also fundamental progress in space medicine to protect astronauts from diseases and mitigate the effects of space-related stressors, advances that could be useful also on Earth (Fernandez C, 2019).
About the authors: Andrea Camera is studying Medicine at the University of Brescia, Department of Clinical and Experimental Science (Brescia, Italy). Ana Sofia Mota is studying Medicine at the University of Lisbon, Faculty of Medicine (Lisbon, Portugal) and Christos Tsagkaris is studying Medicine at the University of Crete, Faculty of Medicine (Heraklion, Greece). They have all taken part in the ESA Human Space Physiology Training Course 2019.
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