The International Space Station’s Columbus module supports astrobiotech research, particularly for European scientists. (credit: ESA)
The Apollo 11 landing was reported as a small step by a man and a great step for mankind. Since then, there have been many steps in space research and exploration, or 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 considerable potential. Currently, 557 experiments in biotechnology and biology are conducted using 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. This article addresses astrobiotech, particularly in the European 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.
One example is biomedical studies to control and reduce space-related stressors on living systems in order to assist space exploration. Since space is a 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 as space and weight are limited and spacecraft re-entry to Earth is detrimental for biological-sample integrity. (Karouia et al, 2017)
Another topic is 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, including being monitored during the whole mission to assess their performance, stability, and high-throughput to provide reliable information in a brief amount of time.
Sensitive techniques such as PCR, gene expression, or proteomics measurements are able to identify and to monitor potential terrestrial biological contaminants for any mission aimed at the search for life. This is important for planetary protection, but also for basic astrobiology research, to study the limits of life in space, and possible evolution in other environments.
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 the 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.
As an example, the Columbus laboratory is the European Space Agency’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 ESA and bioMérieux S.A. for in-situ detection of microbial contamination. 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 and the other 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.
Another experiment, 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 to transition 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 kilogram of food launched to the International Space Station costs about $10,000. 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
Research and development of space biotechnology is highly expensive. Therefore, it is necessary to identify those technologies that are the most valuable and offer the best cost-benefit relationship. For example, 3D-printing might enable astronauts to produce a wide variety of tools and even biological materials such as human tissue on board. However, the main advances rely on the “omics” techniques: amplification and sequencing of DNA as well as 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, because is not necessary to bring samples back to Earth. However, not all data can be analyzed on board. (Fernandez C, 2019)
Recent years have seen several applications of biotechnology in space. Genetic engineering technology is already being used in order to grow plants to ensure food supply. “MELiSSA” is an implemented life support system that is designed to permit the recycling of approximately 100% of the wastes. These benefits are also not limited to space exploration. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are using the US ISS National 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. ( US ISS National Laboratory, 2019)
Astrobiotech in Europe
There is an interest in astrobiotechnology in Europe. The Horizon 2020 program aims, in its words, to “foster a cost-effective and innovative Space industry and research community.” EU policy and societal needs are expected to be addressed through 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, students in EU and ESA member states are encouraged to work on astrobiotechnology as part of their thesis research. ESA has run programs such as “Fly your Thesis,” providing young researchers 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 conditions 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).
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