John Cumbers - Synthetic Biology

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Originally posted on the first SSI website in 2013:

To kick off winter quarter, SSI was proud to host Dr. John Cumbers from NASA Ames to discuss the potential of synthetic biology for space applications on January 10, 2013.

Dr. Cumbers began by identifying the current issue for sustaining human life beyond Earth: the cost of launching resources into orbit and beyond. Currently with SpaceX’s goal of decreasing the cost of putting mass into orbit, the lowest cost possible for placing mass into orbit is about $5,000/kg. As Dr. Cumbers detailed all of the required inputs people, such as 0.84 kg of oxygen and 1.62 kg of drinking water per day, he estimates that is costs $27,000 per person per day in the International Space Station on food, drink, and breathing alone!

To confront this issue, Dr. Cumbers has been looking into ways to apply synthetic biology to satisfy human needs in space at low cost. The idea of synthetic biology is to artificially insert DNA or genes into a cell or host of cells to perform a desired function- such as the way Refactory Materials uses the genes that allow spiders to spin silk in order to create a refined jacket for military use.

The implications for synthetic biology for space exploration are huge. For any long-term stay away from Earth and its resources, the space crew simply needs to take water, some air, and basic materials for building cells and life. Then, when a need for a specific function or process comes along, the crew can simply “create” the DNA and life needed for the process and make the organism on site, rather than spending large amounts of money shipping the mass.

With this, Dr. Cumbers also argued that the main need for the infrastructure of synthetic biology in space is going to be water and therefore a huge market would eventually exist for businesses to “ship” water to LEO and beyond for others to use. Dr. Cumbers suggested that to build this capability, the government should offer to pay for these services so that companies can generate revenue while the infrastructure is still being built. This plays into Dr. Cumbers’ vision that rather than sending all of these resources with people directly, the way forward is to create robotically operated synbio outposts that create the infrastructure and resources in remote locations now that future astronauts will need when they go there.