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NASA looks to engineer microbes to make spider silk for astronauts on Mars

Mars seen in 2018. Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI
Mars seen in 2018. Photo: NASA/ESA/STScI

Hard-working microbes engineered to produce strong spider silk could one day aid astronauts living on Mars.

Why it matters: NASA is looking for ways to reduce the amount of material needed to launch to space for long-duration missions. Engineering microbes to make spider silk could aid in that effort.

Spider silk — which can be as strong as steel, but incredibly light — could be useful on Mars, where space explorers might use it in place of heavy materials that would be expensive and unwieldy to transport from Earth. They could use it to build strong fabrics and possibly even surgical sutures, for example.

  • A lab led by Fuzhong Zhang at Washington University in St. Louis has produced a spider silk made by microbes that is as tough and strong as natural spider silk.
  • They're working to scale up production of the spider silk to "be able to produce meters worth, kilometers-long fibers continuously and relatively easily within the lab," Zhang told Axios.

Yes, but: Creating enough spider silk isn't the only challenge ahead for this work. The spider silk production process needs to be contained inside its own fermentor to reduce the risk of contamination, according to Zhang, which could be a technical challenge on Mars.

  • NASA will also need to protect these microbes from radiation during the journey to Mars.
  • Another NASA lab is also working to create an easily produced food source for the microbes to fuel their work on the Red Planet.