Team led by UF MAE professor Amor Menezes set to begin momentous space biomanufacturing mission

Graduate students in the SYBORGS Lab. Front: Amanda Shick, Anya Volter, Angela Lalovic. Rear: Jithran Ekanayake, Dr. Menezes, Hannah Roberts.

Dr. Amor Menezes is leading a team that will blaze a new and exciting trail in biomanufacturing. His team’s ambitious plans will take flight on the evening of March 14, when a payload containing their bioengineered microbes will be launched at 8:30 p.m. on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket bound for the International Space Station (ISS).

His team is funded by the Biomanufacturing: Survival, Utility, and Reliability beyond Earth (B-SURE) program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), an agency of the US Department of Defense that provided him with a $2.8 million grant for space biomanufacturing research and at least one research flight to the ISS. The team includes another UF MAE professor, Dr. Sean Niemi, as well as researchers from NASA’s Ames Research Center, Rhodium Scientific, the University of Delaware, and the University of California, Berkeley. 

The goal of B-SURE is to establish a resilient supply chain that can support a sustained human space presence. 

“Because it’s so expensive to send stuff into space, one way to cut costs is to manufacture necessities in space itself using local resources,” Menezes said. “What we’ve previously shown is that using biology for this manufacturing can further cut costs over traditional mechanical and chemical techniques. But this approach remains to be tested.”

It all starts with the UF researchers in Menezes’s lab bioengineering microbes to synthesize nutraceuticals and biopolymers and then checking performance in reduced gravity experiments aboard the ISS. 

“This study is a stepping stone toward our long-term vision of engineering cells to make all the things humans will need in space: fuel, pharmaceuticals, food, biopolymers that you could then run in a 3D printer, potentially, whatever else anyone wants,” explained Menezes. ”The basic question we are investigating now is, can we engineer bacteria so that they always produce what we want despite a harsh and unfamiliar environment affecting them?”

The team hopes that greater insights into how microbes function and adapt to the unique challenges of space — for example, radiation, temperature, pressure, and, especially for B-SURE, reduced gravity levels — will give engineers the ability to regulate the output of biomanufactured necessities on future space missions. Such regulation is the focus of Menezes’s lab, where his group develops ways to control complex biosystem behaviors.

His SYBORGS Lab (SYstems/SYnthetic Biological Optimization, Regulation, or Generation Systems) designs and implements novel techniques and algorithms to regulate biological processes for space and medical applications, two instances where biological function can be impaired by an adverse environment. His group ensures that biological operations remain robust in the face of changing conditions. Recently, his group has also been tackling how to control blood clotting after severe injury and after lung infections.   

“Control theory is a really powerful tool, and its use for biology in space is also something that is very science fiction-y,” Menezes said of the possibilities that the B-SURE research could unlock. “You can bring science fiction movies to reality, and that’s just one thing that I think is really cool, really fanciful.”

Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering Release

Story by: Ben Crosbie
Graphics by: Hayley Starr
Marketing & Communications Student Assistants
UF Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering
March 14, 2023