It was December 11, 2022 and the clock marked 12:40 p.m. when Artemis I, NASA´s latest successful mission, officially concluded with the spacecraft splashdown in the Pacific Ocean. Considered a major milestone, Artemis I represents the first step of a comeback: a NASA space programme that will lead to sending humans to the Moon again, after our last visit in 1972. [1] The mission’s success not only represented a milestone for the space exploration sector, but aboard the rocket were 6,000 yeast mutants that successfully travelled 1.4 million miles and orbited the Moon [2].

Ever since humans’ fascination with outer space turned other celestial bodies into a destination, a new age of synthetic biology began. We are not only intrigued by knowledge, but by the idea of establishing human life beyond Earth. As exciting as this might sound for some, the new approach to outer space as a destination comes at a high cost, both literally and metaphorically.

Life as we know it on Earth — and the hope to establish it beyond our planet — has been greatly impacted by the technologies that synthetic biology has delivered in the last two decades.[3] The many research landmarks and new directions for synthetic biology are indeed very impressive but have all been developed under Earth’s conditions. After years of developing science on this planet, we are able to control variables and use the available resources, but outer space conditions are nothing like Earth’s environments.

The implications of stepping into the unknown

From a biological standpoint, outside-the-lab scenarios have wide-ranging challenges and requirements for synthetic biology that are more demanding than typical laboratory settings. [4] Conditions in other celestial bodies are harsh on the human body, there are high levels of radioactivity and resources to cover human needs are limited. If living in outer space were to become a reality, there is an imminent need to develop new technologies that adapt to these conditions. Here, the role of synbio is to design biological processes that transform the available inputs in outer space (carbon dioxide, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen) into the needed outputs (propellant, food, biopolymers, pharmaceuticals) to make life sustainable.[5]

The first required output is propellant, whose availability is crucial for mission completion. The synbio approach of propellant production should focus mainly on the improvement of methanogenic and cyanobacteria to enhance ethane production. Another setback in space is the availability of food that meets the nutritional requirements, while not being a trying experience for astronauts. This is an opportunity to develop technologies that improve biological food production methods that diversify flavours and textures, while allowing to incorporate healthful bioactive peptides that can prevent several diseases.

Another of the challenges to meet basic needs in outer space is that of shelter. A synbio approach should help improve the accumulation of biopolymers, such as PHBs, that would enable efficient three-dimensional printing for habitat and furniture construction. The last challenge that could be tackled is the accelerated expiration of pharmaceuticals induced by radiation. An opportunity to manufacture radioactivity resistant drugs by activating bacteria that can survive between 1.5 and 6 years in a frozen state.

The development of these technologies requires synthetic biologists to keep pushing the boundaries of current knowledge. The associated challenges and opportunities deal with the biological extraction and utilisation of the aforementioned limited space resources, the manufacture and construction of products useful in space, the support of human life, and  the treatment of human health. Ultimately, the large-scale transformation of worlds from harsh environments into more hospitable ones. [6] 

Challenges and opportunities collide

Despite all the experiments that await in the future, the Artemis I mission was a  step towards tackling one of synbio’s greatest challenges: ensuring the reliability of microorganism performance in bioreactors that experience large swings in temperature, ionising radiation, and minimal nutrient and oxygen availability. [6] 

The team from The University of British Columbia, led by Dr. Corey Nislow, retrieved the yeast that went to the Moon and back, and will study the genetic changes produced by space exposure. They will use it to develop countermeasures for combating radiation damage to both yeast and crew member DNA. They plan to introduce a number of fixes to help damaged yeast DNA repair itself and act as a test case to develop anti-cosmic radiation treatments for future astronauts. [7] The team also aims to find if yeasts’ genome-wide signature in response to cosmic radiation resembles that seen by cells exposed to DNA-damaging cancer drugs, and use it later on to improve cancer treatments. In the end, this quest for knowledge will not only serve the future of space exploration, but will improve life as we know it here on Earth.


  1. Maltagliati, Luca. “A Long-Awaited Return to the Moon.” Nature Astronomy, vol. 10, no. 7, 22 Dec. 2022,
  2. Lou Corpuz-Bosshart, et al. “UBC Scientist Is Sending Yeast and Algae to Space on Artemis 1.” UBC News, 23 Aug. 2022, Accessed 8 Feb. 2023.
  3. Meng, Fankang, and Tom Ellis. “The Second Decade of Synthetic Biology: 2010–2020.” Nature Communications, vol. 11, no. 1, 14 Oct. 2020, p. 5174,   
  4. Brooks, Sierra M., and Hal S. Alper. “Applications, Challenges, and Needs for Employing Synthetic Biology beyond the Lab.” Nature Communications, vol. 12, no. 1, 2 Mar. 2021,
  5. Menezes, Amor A., et al. “Towards Synthetic Biological Approaches to Resource Utilization on Space Missions.” Journal of the Royal Society Interface, vol. 12, no. 102, 6 Jan. 2015, p. 20140715,
  6. Menezes, Amor A., et al. “Grand Challenges in Space Synthetic Biology.” Journal of the Royal Society Interface, vol. 12, no. 113, 6 Dec. 2015, p. 20150803,
  7. Labbé, Stefan. “B.C. Researcher Unveils Space Yeast That Could Enable Deep-Space Travel.” Victoria Times Colonist, 22 Jan. 2023, Accessed 8 Feb. 2023.