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Bacteria could do the repair work on space missions

Students on Copenhagen's iGEM team are working on a concept for a bio-plastic generation system that can be used in space

Bacteria could be used on space missions to make plastic repairs.

This is the concept that an interdisciplinary group of students is working on as they prepare for the annual iGEM competition, a global student competition in Synthetic Biology. The Copenhagen iGEM team, called CosmoCrops, is using cyanobacteria and e-coli to create bio-plastic that can be used in 3D printers, theoretically on a spaceship. The team hopes that being able to generate bio-plastic in space will prolong a mission into space, especially in the case of a mechanical malfunction.

“The cyanobacteria produce sugar, and the e. coli then uses the sugar to produce bio-plastic. This plastic can then be extracted and used in a 3D printer,” explains Joachim Larsen, a member of the CosmoCrops team and Master’s student in biology-biotechnology at University of Copenhagen (UCPH).

Just the beginning

Last year, the UCPH team Space Moss took home one of the gold medals in the iGEM competition held in Boston, Massachusetts for their project that focused on genetically modifying moss so that it can resist extremely cold temperature can be able to survive on a much colder plant Mars.

Members of the CosmoCrops Team. From left to right: Joseph Parker, Giulia Perotti, Joachim Steen Larsen, Thue Christian Nikolajsen, Fouzia Hamid, Bastian Bakkensen, Nikolaj Pagh Kristensen and Iris Madsen. Not pictured: Andrea Charlie Stender Cordes and Stael Naseri.

This year’s team will continue research into enabling space exploration and prolonging space travel using synthetic biology. Their concept uses a so-called co-culture made up of cyanobacteria and e-coli.

“A co-culture occurs when two different organisms support each other, or use the properties of one to make the other survive, as in our case,” says Larsen.

“In the long term, we hope to separate the two bacteria to take out the E. coli and replace it with something else to produce something else,” says Joachim Larsen, a member of the CosmoCrops team and Master’s student in Biology-biotechnology at UCPH.

“We plan to use bio-plastic as proof of concept.”

Preparing for competition

The co-culture they create with cyanobacteria and e-coli will just be a jumping off point for creating all sorts of necessary material in outer space. By plugging other organisms into the co-culture system with cyanobacteria, the team hopes to be able to produce things such as food and insulin, in addition to bio-plastic.

The interdisciplinary team of Bachelor’s and Master’s UCPH students were hand-selected by last year’s team following a round of applications. The ten selected students will be attending different conferences in Europe this summer prior to heading off to Boston to compete in the annual synthetic biology competition.

“The huge final competition will be in Boston like last year and will take place the last week of October,” relays Larsen.

Members of the CosmoCrops Team. From left to right: Joseph Parker, Thue Christian Nikolajsen, Bastian Bakkensen, Andrea Charlie Stender Cordes, Nikaloj Pagh Kristensen, Fouzia Hamid, Joachim Steen Larsen, Iris Madsen and Stael Naseri.

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