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MAPEX Research Highlights

A Low-Pressure, N2/CO2 Atmosphere Is Suitable for Cyanobacterium-Based Life-Support Systems on Mars

Cyprien Verseux, Christiane Heinicke, Tiago P. Ramalho, Jonathan Determann, Malte Duckhorn, Michael Smagin, Marc Avila

Front. Microbiol. (2021).

doi: 10.3389/fmicb.2021.611798

Press release ZARM

The leading space agencies aim for crewed missions to Mars in the coming decades. Among the associated challenges is the need to provide astronauts with life-support consumables and, for a Mars exploration program to be sustainable, most of those consumables should be generated on site. Research is being done to achieve this using cyanobacteria: fed from Mars's regolith and atmosphere, they would serve as a basis for biological life-support systems that rely on local materials. Efficiency will largely depend on cyanobacteria's behavior under artificial atmospheres: a compromise is needed between conditions that would be desirable from a purely engineering and logistical standpoint (by being close to conditions found on the Martian surface) and conditions that optimize cyanobacterial productivity. To help identify this compromise, we developed a low-pressure photobioreactor, dubbed Atmos, that can provide tightly regulated atmospheric conditions to nine cultivation chambers. We used it to study the effects of a 96% N2, 4% CO2 gas mixture at a total pressure of 100 hPa on Anabaena sp. PCC 7938. We showed that those atmospheric conditions (referred to as MDA-1) can support the vigorous autotrophic, diazotrophic growth of cyanobacteria. We found that MDA-1 did not prevent Anabaena sp. from using an analog of Martian regolith (MGS-1) as a nutrient source. Finally, we demonstrated that cyanobacterial biomass grown under MDA-1 could be used for feeding secondary consumers (here, the heterotrophic bacterium E. coli W). Taken as a whole, our results suggest that a mixture of gases extracted from the Martian atmosphere, brought to approximately one tenth of Earth's pressure at sea level, would be suitable for photobioreactor modules of cyanobacterium-based life-support systems. This finding could greatly enhance the viability of such systems on Mars.

Updated by: MAPEX