What if a microbe could help change the future of plastic?
The UN has called the accumulation of plastics in the environment a planetary crisis with up to 12 million tonnes entering the oceans every year alone. We are finding microplastics in the environment, man-made islands of trash crowding the ocean, and even a layer of accumulating space trash in our atmosphere. Recycling isn’t enough to fix the plastic crisis—we need new solutions for cleaning up waste.
In collaboration with MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Harvard Medical School, and Weill Cornell Medicine, we’re testing an autonomous system (a bioreactor) that degrades single-use polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic and upcycles it into a new, environmentally benign material (‘new plastic’).
The system first introduces PET to a specialized enzyme, which breaks it down into organic compounds, then utilizes a bioengineered bacterial strain—Pseudomonas putida—to convert these compounds into β-ketoadipic acid (BKA)—a high performance nylon monomer which can then be 3D printed into various objects for Earth and space (think: sneakers, shirts, chairs, even a spacesuit).
Aboard SpaceX CRS-26, the bioreactor was transported to the International Space Station to understand the impacts of unique stressors within the ISS on the bacteria’s upcycling abilities. Microgravity and radiation at the space station will act as catalysts for sustained, enhanced bioactivity, allowing for more efficient biological upcycling. Once in-orbit, the autonomous system will proceed with the pre-programmed experiment schedule, enabling culturing and data collection on the effect of spaceflight on microbes without need for human intervention or astronaut resources for one month and then return to Earth.
Beyond applications for waste management on Earth, microbes’ versatile upcycling capabilities offer a promising tool for the future of space exploration. As we move towards prolonged space flight and continued exploration of the cosmos, the open-source system has the potential to enable increased access to synthetic biology experiments and applications in spaceflight that will ultimately enable resource-sustainability in space travel.
Status of Research
Currently, the system is aboard the International Space Station and will return to Earth in December 2022 for further study.
Xin Liu • MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative
Pat Pataranutaporn • MIT Media Lab
Allison Z Werner • National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)
Benjamin Fram • Harvard Medical School
Nicholas Gauthier • Harvard Medical School
Braden Tierney • Weill Cornell Medicine
Krista A Ryon • Weill Cornell Medicine
Ariel Ekbaw • MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative