MYCO for Mars

Summer 2018 synthetic biology intern project at NASA Ames.

Rendering of proposed habitat by our collaborator, redhouse studio

“Science fiction often imagines our future on Mars and other planets as run by machines, with metallic cities and flying cars rising above dunes of red sand...But the reality may be even stranger.”

- NASA to Popular Mechanics on its MYCO-Architecture Program

During the Summer of 2018, I conducted synthetic biology research at the NASA Ames Research Center with Professor Rothschild as a part of the Stanford-Brown-RISD iGEM Team.

Our research, detailed below, was on the development of affordable, light-weight, and sustainable human habitats for Mars and the Moon through the use of fungal mycelium. My areas of focus were the development of the mycelium based material, mission architecture, and potential applications on Earth.

We presented our work at the 2018 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Symposium and the 2018 international genetically engineered machine (iGEM) competition.

At the competition, the project was nominated for best new composite part and best manufacturing project. To support my research I was awarded the Rhode Island Space Grant and Brown Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award (UTRA).

Our work has been featured in CNET, Popular Mechanics, and SPACE.

How will humans live on Mars?

Mars Ice Habitats by Space Exploration Architecture and Clouds Architecture Office of New York for NASA’s 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge

The human exploration of Mars has been one of NASA's goals for years--with proposed expeditions within the next decade. However, there is a fundamental question that needs to be answered first: how will humans live on Mars?

A visit to Mars could last months to years. Therefore, the habitat must be able to maintain the long-term physical and mental well-being of the astronauts and survive the extreme environment of Mars

Perliminary Research 

To answer some of our primary questions about what the design of a human mission to Mars we interviewed Dr. Michael Meyer, the lead scientist of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, Dr. Lisa Pratt, NASA’s planetary protection officer, and Amy Kronenberg, Biophysicist Staff Scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley Labs and member of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts advisory board.
Team Members Emilia Mann, Leo Penny, and Javier Syquia meeting with Dr.Michael Meyer

The Project Proposal 

Our team realized that in addition to making the habitat comfortable and durable we had to consider how our habitat would be transported to Mars.

Transportation of material through space is a basic yet fundamental component of many of NASA’s objectives.
Whether this material is equipment needed to test for life on Mars or the structures that allow for prolonged habitation, it must travel from earth to its celestial destination, thus incurring great economic and energy costs.

But, what if it didn’t have to be transported from earth? What if it could be grown on planet?

Based on this concept, our team proposed we explore the use of fungal mycelium as a light-weight, durable material that could be grown on site using spores to create habitats and other necessary items.

Microscopic image of G. lucidum mycelium, taken by team member Leo Penny and advisor Lynn Rothschild.

Mycelium is the vegetative structure of a fungus and is analogous to the root system of most plants. As it seeks out nutrients in a substrate it branches out, filling in the gaps of the material.

We initially gravitated towards using mycelium as the core material in the design of our habitat for Mars and the Moon because of its self-perpetuating property--given a substrate it can grow into the shape of any mold it is placed in.

Our idea was that we would send up lightweight, inflatable structure that would act as the mold for the mycelium. The structure would be built with three layers.

The outer layer
would hold water sourced from subsurface ice water at our landing site. The function of this layer is to provide temperature insulation and radiation protection. 

The middle layer would hold the substrate the mycelium would bind to. 

The inner layer is designed to hold the mycelium, which provides the structural integrity and additional radiation protection for the habitat.

Diagram by our collaborator, redhouse studio

Material Development

To demonstrate the potential for using mycelium to grow materials and structures both on and off planet, we tested the growth of mycelium on a variety of different substrates.

The mycelium successfully grew on Martian and Lunar regolith stimulant with minimal nutrients added in the form of PDY (Potato-Dextrose-Yeast) solution. Other noteworthy substrates with exceptional material and environmental promise for terrestrial applications are yard waste, sawdust, used ground coffee beans, and other forms of food waste.

Mycelium growing on Martian regolith and PDY

Mycelium growing on Lunar regolith and PDY Mycelium growing on quinoa flakes

Mycelium growing on quinoa flakes

Mycelium grown on used coffee grounds.

Structural Development

To demonstrate the ability of mycelium to form structures by binding substrates together we grew a variety of bricks and a stool from wood-chips and yard waste from the NASA base. These materials were grown using protocols for sterility developed from our initial material studies as well as tests we ran on ideal growth conditions.

Mycelium spores growing on woodchips
Pile of bricks produced with mycelium and yard waste, wood chips

Process of growing Mycelium based stool with yardwaste as the substrate

Applications on Earth 

As our research progressed and we spoke to more experts working with mycelium, such as Phil Ross (founder of MycoWorks) and Eben Bayer ( one of the co-founders of Ecovative), it became clear to us that mycelium has the potential to revolutionize product manufacturing on earth by introducing a completely biodegradable material that is also self-growing.

These key characteristics will allow manufactures to cut back on the cost, time, energy, and environmental impact involved with traditional production methods. And the ability of manipulate the mechanical properties of the materials ensures that mycelium could be used as a substitute for a variety of products--from furniture to clothing to medical devices.

In response to this exciting realization we began exploring the ways mycelium could be used to create other products that might be necessary for our habitat--ranging from furniture, to scientific instruments, to a filtration system, to even a Rover chassis. We even generated some designs and prototypes for a few of these ideas, fully flushing out the idea of an entire living space created from one material.

For a more detailed report on our project please visit our website by clicking the button below.

Lamps by Ecovative