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The First Bacteria to Upcycle Single-Use Plastic is Heading to Space

Collaborators at Seed Health, MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, NREL, Weill Cornell Medicine, and Harvard Medical School have built an autonomous biological system that converts PET plastic into an environmentally benign "new plastic".

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Our Latest ExpeditionA New Life for Synthetic PlasticsThe Power of Biological UpcyclingBacteria in Space

Introducing the latest funded expedition from SeedLabs. A new environmental research initiative, in collaboration with MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Weill Cornell Medicine, and Harvard Medical School, will send the first bacteria to upcycle single-use plastic to the International Space Station (ISS). Harnessing the power of bacteria and enzymes, the experiment unlocks a new method for the degradation, reuse, and redesign of synthetic plastic that could reimagine the future of waste management—both in spaceflight and on Earth. 

MicroPET bioreactor. An autonomous closed-system that uses enzymes to break down PET plastic and bacteria to upcycle it into a high-performance nylon monomer. Image by Sunanda Sharma.

Single-use plastics account for approximately 40% of the plastic produced every year and while many of these products, such as plastic bags and food wrappers, have a use time of mere minutes to hours, they may persist in the environment for hundreds of years. Meanwhile, plastic production increased exponentially, from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons by 2015, and production is expected to double again by 2050. This global accumulation of plastic pollution has been named a planetary crisis by the United Nations. 

What if microbes could help solve this problem?

“Microbes have evolved enzymes and catabolic pathways to degrade and catabolize human-made plastics as carbon and energy sources. Our system takes that biological process one step further, microbially upcycling those degraded compounds into a high-performance material for reconfiguration,” explained NREL biologist Allison Werner. “This empowers us to not only redefine the lifetime of synthetic plastics on Earth, but represents a new frontier for resource utilization in space travel.”

"More importantly, we must remember that our Earth is also a spaceship—for us, the impact of this research goes beyond space flight, to benefit our home planet."

Xin Liu, MIT Space Exploration Initiative Arts Curator

To answer this, the teams on this project have collectively built a biological system to upcycle single-use polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic into an environmentally benign “new plastic” via engineered bacteria. The system first introduces PET to an enzyme, which breaks it down into organic compounds, then utilizes the bacterial strain Pseudomonas putida to convert these compounds into β-ketoadipic acid (BKA)—a high-performance nylon monomer which can be formulated into various objects (think: a sneaker, a chair, or even a spacesuit). 

“We founded Seed Health with the belief that the application of microbes holds vast potential to solve some of our greatest health and environmental challenges. It is an honor to collaborate with experts at the forefront of microbial innovation to empower a circular economy for plastic and to imagine a future where ecologies impacted by human activity could recover,” said Seed Health Co-CEO and Co-Founder, Raja Dhir.

Pseudomonas putida bacteria have been engineered for plastic upcycling. Image by Allison Werner (NREL).

The biological system launched for the ISS aboard SpaceX CRS-26 on November 26th, 2022 out of Kennedy Space Center. The unique microgravity and radiation at the space station may act as catalysts for sustained, enhanced bioactivity, allowing for more efficient biological upcycling. Once in orbit, the autonomous system proceeded with the pre-programmed experiment schedule, enabling culturing and data collection without the need for human intervention or astronaut resources.

“Microbes’ versatile upcycling capabilities offer a promising tool for the future of space exploration, where In-situ Resource Utilization is crucial for longer and more adaptable manned space missions,” explained Xin Liu, MIT Space Exploration Initiative Arts Curator. “We hope our open-source system can present a potential to enable more access to synthetic biology experiments and applications in spaceflight that will ultimately enable resource-sustainability in space travel. More importantly, we must remember that our Earth is also a spaceship—for us, the impact of this research goes beyond space flight, to benefit our home planet.”

This latest expedition expands our environmental work under SeedLabs, reflecting our commitment to advancing microbial-derived solutions for planetary health. Existing SeedLabs initiatives include the development of probiotic innovations for honey bee preservation and coral reef regeneration.

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