Harvard, Microbes and Mars
The Team of the Wyss (Wyss Institute at Harvard) are developing bioplastics in Solaris’ fermenters, using metabolically engineered microbes that will help sustainability efforts on Earth and will help humans survive on Mars.
Shannon Nagle explains in their article that they “have engineered a microbe that—unlike yeast and E. coli—doesn’t need to eat sugar, instead uses hydrogen and CO2 gas to produce fatty acids that are then polymerized as a form of fat storage. These polymers can be used to create materials such as bioplastics that degrade naturally in the environment.” They have “also engineered the microbe to produce potent carbon-based fertilizers and feedstocks for other microorganisms. The goal is to demonstrate that this gas-based industrial bioproduction method can be used to manufacture valuable products.”
The initiative can help to produce biodegradable plastics that degrade faster with no additional processing to fight the plastic pollution and, once became widely adopted, to also decrease carbon emissions.
Wyss work on engineering these microbes try to support different fields and in particular support the making of industrial agriculture more sustainable: the majority of engineered microbes are fed from plant sugars. The growth of bioproduction could be in competition with human food production causing an increase in the overall acres used for carbon-emitting agriculture. In this case, microbe that Wyss is engineering produces sucrose to feed other microbes that are used for bioproduction, ensuring that crops are used as food and helping fighting climate change overpassing the creation and the use of synthetic fertilizers.
The aim of the project and of Shannon’s work is to show how the biology and, in particular, synthetic biology, could help our Earth at remaining habitable and also,could help us to diversify our planetary portfolio and sustainably settle other planets. “As long as we have the raw starting materials, we can use the same biological technologies that function on Earth to live off the land on other planets. By contributing to research on Earth that is relevant for sustainability, I am also contributing to the effort to help humans survive off Earth, which will help humanity persist, so that our consciousness expands” said Shannon.
Why Mars? It is the most Earth-like. It has tons of carbon (as CO2) and water. The Wyss’s microbial system uses CO2 and hydrogen from water as primary inputs, so it could be used as a multipurpose platform for human settlements on-site: run an In-Situ Resource Utilization, basically, translate and living off the land.
It’s essential to Martian settlement, biology has the tools to transform the simple raw and precious materials present on Mars like sulfur, phosphorus, and nitrogen, into complex, useful materials to help humans survive off Earth and so, delete the problem of their transportation on the Earth.