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Issue 3/2018

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bioplasticsMAGAZINE_1803

From Science & Research

From Science & Research Astroplastic – 3D-printable PHB from human waste for use in space Governments and private enterprises alike are gearing up for travel across our Solar System. Plans to colonize nearby planets are underway, with Elon Musk spearheading the initiative to put a human colony on Mars by 2030. In a parallel vein, NASA is planning a manned exploratory mission to Mars as early as the 2030s. Several other space agencies have similar plans and timelines for their own Mars explorations. This exciting time in our history nonetheless comes with the challenges of long-term space travel. Two ecological and economic challenges arise: the sustainable management of waste produced on a spaceship and the high cost of shipping materials to space [1]. A current University of Calgary’s project involves using genetically engineered E. coli to turn human waste into bioplastics. The project is envisioned as a start-to-finish integrated system that can be used in space to generate items useful to astronauts during early Mars missions. This will solve the problem of waste management by upcycling solid human waste into a usable product. It will also reduce astronautical costs, as expensive fuel routinely used to ship materials to space can be saved. For the team of students testing a breakthrough biological plastic for 3D printing in space, the formula was the difference between using fake feculence or finding a volunteer to provide the real deal [2]. “We actually tried to pursue the route of using the real thing, but no one wanted to have it inside the lab,” laughs Alina Kunitskaya, a fourth-year chemical engineering student at the Schulich School of Engineering. UCalgary’s project, entitled Astroplastic: From Colon to Colony, tests the theory of using human waste as the foundation for a bioplastic that can then be used in 3D printers to build tools — a process that would be especially useful to astronauts on deep-space missions. The bioplastic material meant here is Poly(3- hydroxybutyrate) (PHB), a linear polyester and is a product of bacterial fermentation of some sugars or lipids. PHB is used by certain bacteria as carbon and energy storage. “With space travel, such as a three-year mission to Mars, there are major challenges to overcome,” explains Kunitskaya, who specializes in biomedical engineering. “Transporting material is difficult and expensive, and how do you anticipate every challenge and everything you need over three years on a trip to Mars? Recycling waste is another major challenge.” Making plastic out of poop could be the answer, and the Calgary team — composed of 14 undergraduate students from the Faculty of Science, the Cumming School of Medicine, and the Schulich School of Engineering, with mentoring from six faculty advisers from the three disciplines — decided to find out. “We got the team together at the beginning of the winter semester (2016) and started brainstorming ideas, and each person came up with their own idea,” says Kunitskaya. “The only criteria is having synthetic biology which is engineering bacteria to do something useful. And at first, our idea was to make plastic out of wastewater.” A visit to Calgary’s wastewater treatment plant and further brainstorming refined that idea into a solution for deep-space astronauts. And, armed with the advice of 38 bioplastics MAGAZINE [03/18] Vol. 13

From Science & Research Save the date see page 10-11 for details real space travellers like Chris Hadfield and University of Calgary Chancellor Robert Thirsk, the team had its mission. “This year, the University of Calgary’s project involves using genetically engineered E. coli to turn human waste into PHB,” reads the team summary of the project. “We envision our project as a start-to-finish integrated system that can be used in space to generate items useful to astronauts during early Mars missions. This will solve the problem of waste management by upcycling solid human waste into a usable product.” And yes, it works. More than just an exercise on paper, the team actually produced PHB in the Bachelor of Health Sciences laboratory, where the team worked all spring and summer, carefully documenting every detail of their collaborative work on a wiki website [1]. The detailed research and stringent attention to the iGEM requirements earned the team a gold medal at the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation’s Giant Jamboree in Boston, where nearly 5,000 students representing 330 universities presented their best ideas on synthetic biology. In addition the Astroplastic project was nominated for Best Manufacturing Project at the Boston event — the world’s premiere student team competition in synthetic biology. “The jamboree was their time to shine, and shine they did — for the University of Calgary,” says Mayi Arcellana- Panlilio, senior instructor in biochemistry and molecular biology at Cumming School of Medicine, and lead faculty adviser of the iGEM team. MT Sources: [1] Astroplastic-wiki: http://2017.igem.org/Team:Calgary [2] https://tinyurl.com/astroplastic www.ucalgary.ca bioplastics MAGAZINE [03/18] Vol. 13 39

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