Closeup shot of a jellyfish on the shoreline
“Synthetics for space” by Monica Hernandez. December 2019.

Engineering Biology and Genetics: Synthetics for Space

The advances in synthetic biology and genome editing can redesign biological organisms and modify our genetic codes for new possibilities that would ensure long-term survival in space

Monica Hernandez

Synthetic biology seems like something out of a gripping science fiction series — it’s not. Research and development in this emerging field of science redesigns living, natural organisms and systems for a specific functional purpose. Researchers change an organism’s genetic code by inserting new molecules found in other organisms or with completely new, artificially created genes for different functions not found in nature, ranging from drug delivery to waste removal. A team of scientists led by the University of Bristol, for example, published in Nature 2022 their methods for synthesizing an artificial primitive cell, typically called protocell or protobiont, from preexisting ones by using two types of bacteria. Researchers concluded their work set an experimental precedent for artificial cells with higher complexity and potential unprecedented use cases. In addition, the Canada-based startup Future Fields, can insert DNA into a bioengineered fruit fly genome to serve as a natural bioreactor for protein cell growth. So, despite how futuristic-sounding or far-fetched it may seem, synthetic biology has steadily gained traction beyond the biotechnology and medical sectors for novel applications in long-term space exploration.

In the United States, for example, funding from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) has been directed toward synthetic biology for space. Ahmed Badran is an assistant professor in Chemistry at Scripps Research, a nonprofit biomedical research institute in La Jolla, California. With a background in bioengineering, Badran recently made headlines when he received an award to conduct research for biosynthetic carbon dioxide recycling and conversion strategies for non-terrestrial environments, including water ecosystems and their potential applications beyond Earth. Specifically, by combining bioengineering, directed evolution, genome editing, and synthetic biology, Badran seeks “to (re)engineer highly integrated cellular signaling networks towards researcher-defined function.”

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