Synthetic Biology for Space Program

MIT Research Scientist Christopher Carr on challenges of distant journeys, components of cosmic radiation, and harnessing engineered organisms

videos | June 5, 2014

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  • Which particles within cosmic radiation is dangerious during travels to other planets? How can tardigrades help develop systems for future space missons? Research Scientist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology Christopher Carr describes properties of habitable spacecraft of future.

    It’s not outside the realm of possibility and because B. subtilis can also go into a spore state you might envision maybe a card or some other collection of you know different spores of these engineered organisms and when you wanted to make something in particular, could be a drug but you can imagine that synthetic biology could also play a role in your life support system or maybe in combination with a food growth or some other crop production or some other feature that you might want to have as part of your Mars mission.

    There’s a big problem with synthetic biology systems in that right now we’re really at the infancy of the field, it’s becoming easier to do the engineering of a genome but we also need ways to analyze these systems and you might be able to build a reporter like fluorescence for example or some other reporter but you might also want to monitor at a more fundamental level. In that you might want to know if the genetics are stable and so we’re building an instrument to go search for life on Mars based on the idea that life on Mars, if it in fact exists, could be related to life on Earth so we’re building a small RNA and DNA sequencer and the idea there is if we had a device like that, say with human explorers or on a robotic mission, it can be used to monitor a synthetic biology system.

    One of the things that we did was to take a number of different components and expose them to analog of space radiation and we expose them to neutrons at the MIT nuclear reactor, in particular we didn’t use the reactor itself we used a californium source and to provide a neutron exposure that would be commensurate with a mission to Mars. Neutrons not being one of the primary components in radiation but is a very common secondary. Then we also used components of space radiation like protons which you can get both from Solar radiation as well as galactic cosmic radiation and so we exposed our reagents to protons. We also exposed reagents to heavy ions like iron and oxygen down at Brookhaven National Lab.

    Research Scientist, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences

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