Growing Habitats on Mars | Javier Syquia | BFA Graphic Design & BA Chemistry 2021
It has been about 4 weeks into my internship experience here at the NASA Ames Research Center, and I can happily say that I am enjoying being a part of such an inspirational and thought provoking community! It has been extremely interesting seeing how my background as a Graphic Designer is influencing the ways I approach the research that I have been doing with my fellow team, comprised of Stanford University, Brown University, and Brown|RISD Dual Degree students.
The Stanford-Brown-RISD Team!
Though the research we are doing is taking place and being funded by NASA Ames, located in Mountain View, CA, all our findings are also going to be presented at the international iGEM Jamboree, taking place this upcoming October. iGEM was started by MIT in the goal of forwarding the field of bioengineering, while promoting collaboration between students at the High School, Undergraduate, and Graduate levels. Teams are encouraged to take their projects into whatever form they’d like, so long as they contribute to iGEM’s Registry of “BioBricks”, which are essentially building blocks for synthetic biology that, for example, allow engineered bacteria to act in ways that scientists want them to.
This year, the Stanford-Brown-RISD iGEM Team, that I am a part of, is focusing on how to build a habitat for humans on Mars. For many years, it has been one of NASA’s goals to bring humans to Mars to continue growing our knowledge of Space. One of the largest hurdles that NASA has come to, however, is the enormous expense that is required of space travel – it cost NASA about $2.78 Million USD per kilogram to send the Curiosity Rover to Mars. This same issue will rise if NASA wants to send humans to Mars, as it would require bringing a large, already built human habitat. But what if NASA did not have to send this habitat to Mars? What if it could be built –– or grown –– on site? Our iGEM Team proposes that through the use of fungal mycelia (the vegetative part of fungi that is analogous to the root system of most plants), a small amount of mycelia spores can be sent within a mold to be grown on-site, thus reducing the cost of space travel.
The use of mycelium to create material is nothing new – it has been done successfully by several researchers and designers. A noteworthy designer that I had the honor of meeting – Phil Ross, founder of Mycoworks – actually developed a form of mycelium that is similar to leather, and is being used to create high fashion items. Ross spoke to me and my team a lot about the hurdles he went through in order to develop this new kind of material, as well as the fact that he even developed materials that were as strong as wood and concrete. There are several other companies and labs that focus on such work, such as Ecovative, that have shown that mycelium can be used to replace materials such as styrofoam, wood, bricks, cement, and more, thus offering a biodegradable and sustainable alternative.
Materials produced by Mycoworks while researching the material capabilities of fungal mycelium.
Though, our iGEM team wants to utilize this increasingly popular material specifically on Mars. Our team is exploring how to use our expertise in Bioengineering to push the boundaries of how mycelium is grown and used. To better explain how our project is taking shape, below is a poster I made that we have been using for some showcases that our team has been a part of.
The project still has several places that it may go, but I am excited to see how it is really taking shape after working closely with other students in the bioengineering field. What particularly excites me about this project is how much it relies on design – how will this habitat look? What is the best mechanism to get mycelium spores to grow into an actual habitat? How can the strength of this material be tested? How will this material hold in a completely different environment? The design opportunities are endless, and its intertwined relationship with biology and engineering are inspiring me to look at different ways that science and design may intermingle.
Below are a few images of the mycelium being grown on different media. We have found that though it is easier to track growth on PDYA plates (Potato Dextrose Yeast Agar), the mycelium is also able to grow on different food wastes like used coffee grounds, old grains, corn starch, and wood chips.
If the use of mycelium on Earth gains momentum, it would be interesting to see how food waste may be repurposed to grow new materials that may be used for everyday objects!
There’s so much more to talk about and so much more research being done. I’m looking forward to continue to share the team’s progress and my involvement! Till next time~