In South Carolina, Clemson University professor Mark Blenner has demonstrated that untreated urine can fulfill the nitrogen needs of the omega-3 fatty acid-producing yeast Yarrowia lipolytica. The findings suggest that future astronauts could use pee to produce nutrients and raw materials on long-haul space flights.
“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,” Blenner says. “Atom economy will become really important.” A source of omega-3 fatty acids would be vital for such a mission because supplements don’t have a long shelf live, Blenner adds. Another strain of Y. lipolytica produces polyester, which can be used in a 3D printer. “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 adds.
Theoretically, microbes could even use Mars’ atmosphere or astronauts’ exhalation as a carbon dioxide source.