When we eventually travel to the distant Red Planet, there will not be enough room to carry unnecessary spare parts and some of the essential nutrients don't have a long enough shelf life to survive the journey. Some researchers are trying to find a solution and they are recruiting microorganisms to solve both of these problems at hand. By engineering these microorganisms to make nutrients and 3D-printable plastic out of human waste ( yes, exactly like the guy from The Martian movie – well kind of).
Astronauts on the ISS have the benefit of regular cargo shuttles to resupply them, but a crew bound for the Red Planet needs to find ways to be self-sufficient and need to produce what they can along the way and on arrival. "If astronauts are going to make journeys that span several years, we'll need to find a way to reuse and recycle everything they bring with them," says Mark Blenner, lead researcher on the new project.
Blenner's team has developed a way to recycle waste products into useful materials using a yeast species called Yarrowia Lipolytica. This microorganism feeds on nitrogen and carbon, and the researchers found that human waste can provide both of these elements (thanks body for being so cool). Untreated urine contains urea which, in turn, contains nitrogen, and the carbon can be sourced from the CO2 that astronauts exhale, or eventually, even from the Martian air.
The researchers presented their work at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society, and they explain the process in the video below.