Astronauts are masters at recycling, and the brave space farers aboard the International Space Station already repurpose urine and the humidity they exhale into drinking water, but when it comes time to send a manned mission to Mars, pee might be an even more crucial resource. A new research effort aimed at using astronaut pee to build materials like plastics and even vital nutrients is well underway.
The key to it all is special strains of yeast which have the ability to turn astronaut waste into something much more useful. The researchers have already determined that the microorganisms are capable of living off the carbon from the CO2 exhaled by the crew (and processed by algae) and nitrogen from their urine, but it’s what the yeast has been engineered to produce that is really stunning.
One strain has been tweaked to produce polymers which could be used to build plastic objects in a 3D printer, while another creates omega-3 fatty acids which are absolutely vital to the long-term health of any astronauts making a long-term trip to Mars or beyond. The crew could feasibly harvest these nutrients from the yeast indefinitely.
The research is still in its fairly early stages — that is, we’re not nearly at a point where astronauts could actually rely on yeast to help them build plastics or provide life-sustaining nutrients — but the progress that’s already been made is quite promising. There’s still plenty of work to do, but if we’re one day able to actually send humans all the way to Mars, it might be pee and yeast that helps get us there.