06/03/2021

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Not just any technology

Astronauts Get Sick, Too. Here’s the Tech That Could Grow Medicine on Mars

This short article appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of Discover as “Medication for Mars.” Support our science journalism by becoming a subscriber.


Science fiction writers have been dreaming of a crewed mission to Mars for about a century. But it wasn’t right up until Wernher von Braun printed the English translation of his guide, The Mars Challenge, in 1953 that the plan was plucked out of the realm of fiction and into fact.

The Mars Challenge makes an spectacular case for the complex feasibility of obtaining to Mars, outlining with extraordinary specificity how 10 space cars, each manned with 70 persons and employing typical propellant, could realize a round-vacation voyage to the Pink Earth.

Although science has produced significantly because the guide was printed, worries even now stay, from building a breathable habitat to rising nutritious foodstuff. But there’s a different issue that a NASA investigate project identified as the Middle for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Room (CUBES) has been operating on because 2017, one particular that is as vital to the very long-phrase accomplishment of an off-earth human settlement as air or foodstuff: managing ailment.

It’s a difficult difficulty that doesn’t have an easy answer. What about packing the shuttle comprehensive of drugs? This could appear to be like a realistic answer at initially look, but astronauts can not know in progress all of the means they could get sick. There are some recognised risks to sending human everyday living to Mars, these as the effects of the planet’s lower gravity on bone density and muscle mass or probable publicity to cosmic radiation as astronauts depart the protecting address of Earth’s ambiance. But packing medications for each contingency would be high-priced and consider up valuable cargo space.

Nor could astronauts count on timely shipments from Earth, because of to the very long length among our earth and Mars. The spacecraft that have landed on Mars have taken the far better part of a yr to get there. Perseverance, the most latest robotic rover sent to Mars on July 30, 2020, is expected to land by the time you read this: a lot more than two hundred times immediately after start. Which is considerably too very long to provide urgent, lifesaving medicines or materials.

Artificial Options

Instead than sending astronauts into space with a pricey and finite inventory of medications, researchers have approached the difficulty a little in a different way. What if astronauts could manufacture on Mars what they require?

A NASA concept for rising veggies off-world.
(Graphic Credit: NASA)

This is one particular of the solutions that CUBES, a Room Technological innovation Investigation Institute established by NASA in February 2017, is trying to build. And it is accomplishing so employing the instruments and methods of synthetic biology — a scientific field that utilizes engineering to establish new biological organisms on demand.

“If we could have programmable everyday living make points for us, then we really do not have to account for each likelihood prior to we go, due to the fact everyday living is programmable in means that other points aren’t,” says Adam Arkin, director of CUBES. Arkin has put in his vocation investigating how, as he puts it, “to establish points out of everyday living,” by developing a lot more sustainable biomanufacturing methods. Mars introduced an ideally difficult ecosystem for these aspirations immediately after all, it’s an unpredictable, excessive ecosystem exactly where human beings must, by requirement, expend each source out there to them. “If we could establish some thing that could be grown, fundamentally, as a factory, we could cut down the prices and enhance the effectiveness and resiliency when you [are on Mars],” he says.

Programmable Crops

The “factories” Arkin envisions could include things like engineering to method plants, these as lettuce and spinach, and microbes, these as spirulina, to develop secure drug therapies. 1 of four divisions in CUBES, the Food and Prescription drugs Synthesis Division (FPSD) is discovering a handful of different approaches to best leverage the natural way happening organisms for pharmaceutical production. For case in point, there is the seed inventory product: Seeds from a plant that has been genetically modified to develop a focus on molecule (a drugs), are sent on the spacecraft with the astronauts. Then, when a human colony has been established on Mars, settlers could mature these plants and possibly immediately eat the plant to get the drugs, or extract the medicinal element, purify it, and inject it as we do with lots of medicine on Earth.

In purchase to develop these plants, the FPSD is employing an more mature approach identified as agrobacterium transformation, a method in which germs identified as Agrobacterium tumefaciens is used as a vehicle to provide a DNA expression technique into the plant genome. By introducing new DNA into the focus on plant, researchers are capable to induce the plant to develop a therapeutic protein that it would not or else. Another method will involve synthesizing genes that code for no matter what drug an astronaut may possibly require on Mars, or deciding upon from a form of DNA library, then injecting genes immediately into the plant.

“When you’re chatting about synthetic biology, one particular of the powerful points about it is you can synthesize DNA for a assortment of uses. So, getting a gene synthesis capability on-earth I believe would be a quite precious tool,” says Karen McDonald, head of the FPSD and a professor of chemical engineering at the College of California, Davis. Once synthesized, the genes could be immediately launched into plants on demand employing a tool identified as a gene gun, a ballistic product that shoots particles of DNA on to the floor of a leaf with these power that it penetrates the plant’s cell wall, letting the genetic substance to be launched into the organism.

What does this search like in apply? 1 of the division’s most important initiatives is to develop a protein peptide in lettuce plants that could be used to handle osteopenia or osteoporosis employing agrobacterium transformation. By propagating the plant through multiple generations, researchers will be capable to decide on for the lines that develop the most secure amounts of the drug from one particular generation to the subsequent. They are also searching at other leafy greens, these as spinach, as probable platforms for medicine. Not only have these plants been usually used in NASA experiments, they also have a quite substantial harvest index, indicating that most or all of the plant can be eaten for foodstuff, which makes them probably candidates for a mission to Mars.

leafy green- MAR/APRIL

Leafy greens, these as spinach, may possibly be ideal platforms for rising therapeutic medicine.
(Credit: Denis DENIS Pogostin/Shutterstock)

But the function is not without having its worries, compounded by the calls for of the Martian ecosystem.

The Upcoming Earth

“As engineers, we function with building methods beneath constraints,” McDonald says. “But the constraints that we are dealing with below on Earth are practically nothing like the constraints that you could have in a Mars mission.” Her crew faces two linked worries: perfecting approaches to cheaply and proficiently extract from plants and purify compounds that are safe for the astronauts to inject, and figuring out how significantly of the treatment would basically make it into the bloodstream. McDonald says astronauts may possibly require to convey some diagnostic products to assure the drugs is purified and safe to eat.

Although CUBES has its sights set on the stars, this function has significant queries for everyday living on Earth, too. Arkin says it’s unlikely — and unwell-encouraged, from a wellness and security standpoint — that this engineering will do away with the large-scale production of prescribed drugs below on Earth. But that doesn’t suggest that CUBES’ investigate doesn’t have the probable to radically disrupt the way we eat and mature points below, especially in the coming a long time as local climate transform intensifies, the world population increases, and our pure assets carry on to diminish.

“[CUBES] was about the plan that, indeed, Mars is the subsequent earth we could pay a visit to, but our earth is transforming at these a substantial rate that we have to offer with the ‘next planet’ below as well,” Arkin says. “And if we can establish an autotrophic self-making factory that can guidance 10 persons for foodstuff and fuel and prescribed drugs and making components, from carbon dioxide and gentle and squander, that would be a enormous gain to mankind everywhere you go. It would set us up for our subsequent earth below.”


Aria Alamalhodaei is a freelance author dependent in Montana.