Initially, researchers want to improve algae’s ability to use light to capture carbon, and in turn, help support animal and plant life in space, said Mark Settles, a UF professor of horticultural sciences.
“I’ve recently become interested in applying synthetic biology to plants, particularly to understand how starch and grain-storage proteins accumulate in the cells,” said Settles, a faculty member at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. “Corn is very hard to manipulate and takes a long time to develop improved varieties.”
“I figured I could start by working with algae and that NASA would be interested in engineering algae that could be used as food,” he said. “We are adapting algae to grow as fast as they do in conventional liquid cultures on Earth.”
Among its advantages, cultivated algae could provide a system to recycle carbon dioxide and perhaps eventually provide food or a source of vitamins for crew members on long space voyages, said Settles. Previous studies show rodents and chickens eat algae, so it’s edible for humans, too, although astronauts don’t eat it yet, he said.
In conducting his month-long experiment, Settles will select algal strains that improve growth in a microgravity environment.
Algal oils also can produce fuel or be used to make plastics and resins in space, Settles said. Algae also make carotenoids and vitamins, which are important for human nutrition, Settles said. This is critical because space flight diminishes astronauts’ vision and exposes them to cosmic radiation.
“Algal carotenoids may help mitigate some of these harmful effects,” Settles said.
Settles’ next step is to extract DNA and sequence the genome of the space-selected algal strains. He and his research team also will propagate the space strains in the lab to maintain them for future space missions.