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Although we have not yet been able to create space colonies, one group of researchers has already engineered the spacesuits our bacteria will need to survive beyond Earth. University of California, Berkeley, (UC Berkeley) chemists have developed the protective suits microbes will need to live and even thrive in space.
— UC Berkeley (@UCBerkeley) October 1, 2018
Useful multi-purpose suits
Indeed, these microscopic suits will not only allow bacteria to tolerate space's inhospitable environment, the multi-purpose spacesuits will actually enable these microbes to capture carbon dioxide (CO2) and convert it into chemicals that can be used by industry or, of course, future space colonies. The novel suits come from a unique system that sees live bacteria paired with light-absorbing semiconductors.
Essentially, these microbe spacesuits are complex elaborate systems that mimic the process of photosynthesis witnessed in plants. The suit experiment employed anaerobic bacteria, microbes adapted to environments without oxygen.
“We picked these anaerobic bacteria because their selectivity toward one chemical product is always 100 percent,” said Peidong Yang, the S. K. and Angela Chan Distinguished Chair in Energy in UC Berkeley’s Department of Chemistry. However, instead of using light to turn CO2 into carbohydrates, the hybrid system suits see the same process produce a variety of carbon compounds unique to each type of bacteria.
“In our case, we picked a bug that gives us acetate. But you could select another bug to give you methane or alcohol," added Yang.
The suits consist of a patchwork of mesh-like pieces called a metal-organic framework (MOF). They were developed by Yang and his colleagues over the past five years based on research they had conducted on light-absorbing semiconductors such as nanowires.
The novel suits are impermeable to oxygen and reactive oxygen molecules, known to shorten bacteria lifespan, but more importantly, they can also use an array of nanowires to capture light and generate electricity. As such the system suits are protective multi-functional assets.
Right here on Earth
From turning CO2 into products to providing a biological way to create chemicals in artificial environments (such as space colonies) to generating electricity, it seems there is nothing these microbial spacesuits cannot do! And the researchers are not waiting for a space journey to capitalize on these impressive tools.
They have started to put these hybrid spacesuits to use right here on Earth. “We are using our biohybrid to fix CO2 to make fuels, pharmaceuticals and chemicals, and also nitrogen fixation to make fertilizer,” explained Yang who is also a faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a co-director of the Kavli Energy Nanoscience Institute.
The research was funded by none other than space agency NASA through UC Berkeley’s Center for the Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space. The corresponding study is set to be posted online this week in advance of publication in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.