The richest man on earth is trying to get off it.
In a recent interview with CNBC news, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos warned that humans are “in the process of destroying this planet.” We have to go to space, he added, “if we are going to continue to have a thriving civilization.”
A stark warning, to be sure, and one that Bezos seems committed to. The entrepreneur has been pouring a billion dollars per year of cashed-out Amazon stock into his rocket company, Blue Origin, which is now working with the federal government to develop new rockets, landers, and spacefaring vehicles.
To save the planet, Bezos wants to see manufacturing moved to space. In the same CNBC interview, he noted that by building microprocessors and other complex goods in orbit and then sending them back down to Earth, he believes humanity could dramatically cut back on the large factories and dirty industries that are currently driving climate change.
There are others who want to make manufacturing more sustainable — both in space and here at home. The synthetic biology industry, which raised $3.8B in financing last year, is working to revolutionize how we build things by making biology easier to engineer.
Here are five reasons why synthetic biology should be a major part of Bezos’ plan:
- Meat without animals, fruit without dirt
It costs $2,000 to ship a lemon to the space station. It’s time we learned how to grow food after we get there. Two techniques from biology — one old, one new — could make this dream practical.
Fermentation has been used for centuries to make bread and beer. Now terrestrial startups are pioneering ways of using it to produce animal proteins like whey and casein, with efficiencies that dwarf those seen when farming whole animals. With fermentors running in orbit, a simple mix of sugar and nitrogen could readily be converted into a laundry list of nutritious (and delicious) ingredients. Why bother estimating how many lemons your brave astronauts will need? Instead, ship simpler ingredients and let the crew brew the custom proteins, vitamins and flavors that they want.
More advanced entrees could be grown in space using an emerging technique called cellular agriculture. With it, tissue from cows, chickens, tuna or even plants are made to grow in a lab, yielding the complex textures and rich tastes we are already accustomed to. Finless Foods, based in Emeryville, California, is working out how to manufacture fish and other seafood this way. Memphis Meats, headquartered in nearby Berkeley, California, is doing the same for beef and poultry. Limits on scale and high price points will need to be overcome before these products can take a bite out of terrestrial markets, but their economics may look different from space.
- Materials grown in orbit
Have you ever arrived at the beach only to discover that you forgot to pack a towel? Imagine that feeling, but in orbit. Thankfully, synthetic biologists are already working out how to grow textiles, building materials, and more using microbes.
New York-based Ecovative is creating sustainable alternatives to plastics using mushrooms. Their dense root structures can be coaxed to form recyclable meshes, boards, and other advanced materials. Spiber, a biomaterials company based in Japan, is mass-producing spider silk using synthetic biology. It recently announced plans to build the largest structural protein production plant in the world.
For long stints in space, having the ability to grow new textiles and recycle old ones would help ensure safety and comfort while cutting down on costs.
- Processing human waste
“The easy part of space flight is getting to space,” says Michael Flynn, a water recycling expert at NASA. Once you arrive, no natural biospheres, flowing rivers, or ecological niches will be waiting to sustain you. “Those functions need to be turned into devices,” notes Flynn, “then loaded into the spacecraft to operate to keep you alive in space.”
Recycling urine into fresh drinking water is essential for any long stay in space, but current mechanical recycling systems—including those running on the International Space Station—are lacking. NASA is currently testing whether biological membranes can be used in orbit to help process urine, and how algae grown in porous plastic bags can be used to control humidity inside spacefaring vehicles.
“The level of refinement that has occurred in biological processes is an order of magnitude better than what has occurred in mechanical processes, so if we can take the lessons learned from evolution and apply it to life support systems, we can achieve higher levels of sustainability,” says Flynn.
Engineers have yet found little use for astronaut feces, which account for only a tiny fraction of all human waste by weight, but this precious organic matter could be fodder for the right engineered microbes. Synthetic control over the microbial metabolism would allow for fresh products to be manufactured from this forgotten resource.
- CO2 manufacturing
Humans generate waste outside the bathroom, too. A single adult can exhale a kilogram of CO2 per day. Capturing that gas and turning it into something more useful would help close the carbon loop on any space outpost.
Lanzatech, based in Skokie, Illinois, has shown that microbes in a reactor can convert carbon dioxide into ethanol, a useful fuel in its own right, but the company is also researching ways to further transform that ethanol into precursors for plastics and more. The company, which just received a $72 million Series E investment, is scaling up its carbon-capture operations in hopes of making a dent on the climate crisis, but even small-scale reactors could make an impact in orbit.
- Send a seed, grow a house
Synthetic biology’s ultimate aim is to achieve mastery over the building blocks of life. With that mastery, all manner of new self-organizing structures could be programmed from the ground up. While this dream is still a long way out, its technological foundation is being laid today.
IKEA has partnered with Ecovative to use mushroom packing for shipping furniture. This petroleum-free styrofoam alternative can be composted and even remade into new forms, slashing the waste generated by the furniture giant. Ecovative’s customers also include Dell and Crate & Barrel.
Small startups aren’t the only ones thinking up new ways to grow habitats. NASA’s Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space, or CUBES, is working through ways of building with biology on Mars, given the red planet’s scant resources.
There will be many billion-dollar manufacturing opportunities in space, but each of these synthetic biology moonshots would also improve conditions here on Earth. Who doesn’t want distributed biomanufacturing to produce new materials anywhere and anytime?