A special yeast may turn astronaut waste into useful tools

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"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", study leader Mark Blenner, of Clemson University in SC, said in a statement.

A strain of yeast that can recycle urine and carbon dioxide into omega-3 fatty acids and polymers has been developed by United States scientists, who say it could help astronauts turn waste products into food on long interplanetary journeys.

Dubbed the "Atom economy", Blenner says such recycling will becoming "really important" for future missions if astronauts are going to make journeys which span beyond a few years.

Biomolecular engineer Mark Blenner from Clemson University in SC presented the work at the 254th American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition in Washington, DC, as part of a broader session on getting people to Mars. The solution offered by the researchers would thus, not only be a core answer to the spare parts problem, but also a more useful alternative to dumping astronaut waste into space.

Unlike people on Earth, Blenner said, spacefarers wouold not want to throw any waste molecules away.

One engineered yeast strains is able to produce omega-3 fatty acids, while another is now able to produce monomers for conversion to polyester polymers - usable by 3D printers to print out replacement tools. One of the key motivation factors for Blenner and the team was the idea of creating a biological system that can be toggled between active and dormant on command. Blenner's team discovered that the yeast can obtain their nitrogen from urea in untreated urine.

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According to scientists from Clemson University, astronauts themselves could fill the gap in resources - by donating their urine and exhaled carbon dioxide (CO2). However, the yeast needs a helping hand to separate the carbon from CO2, and that comes in the form of the blue-green algae called cyanobacteria.

One of the yeast strains produces omega-3 fatty acids, which contribute to heart, eye and brain health.

With all the ingredients in place, the yeast will churn out monomers and link them together to create polyester polymers.

Despite only having managed to produce small amounts of polyesters or nutrients from Y. lipolytica in the lab, the Clemson researchers are hopeful that further studies will lead to increases in output. However, they are also looking at ways the yeast could be used to advantage on Earth, such as for fish farms and aquaculture. Meanwhile, two other teams are engineering yeast to make polyesters. "Every new organism has some amount of quirkiness that you have to focus on and understand better". Eastern time in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. To ask questions online, sign in with a Google account. ACS does not conduct research, but publishes and publicizes peer-reviewed scientific studies.

Note to journalists: Please report that this research was presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.