WashU students contribute to biomanufacturing in space

WashU engineers visited Kennedy Space Center to report research progress and understand testing capabilities for alternative feedstocks in biomanufacturing

Shawn Ballard 
Millie Savage (left) and Hakyung Lee (right) conducted research in Yinjie Tang’s lab last summer in preparation for a late August shuttle launch from Kennedy Space Center. (Photo courtesy of Hakyung Lee)
Millie Savage (left) and Hakyung Lee (right) conducted research in Yinjie Tang’s lab last summer in preparation for a late August shuttle launch from Kennedy Space Center. (Photo courtesy of Hakyung Lee)

Many kids dream of being astronauts when they grow up, but Millie Savage is contributing to something bigger: helping future space explorers manufacture their own supplies in space conditions.

Savage, an undergraduate at Lincoln University and research intern in the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering (EECE) in the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, is part of WashU’s team participating in the Biomanufacturing: Survival, Utility, and Reliability beyond Earth (B-SURE) program, a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program. In partnership with DARPA and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the WashU team is exploring what alternative feedstocks can be consumed by host organisms for future biomanufacturing in space conditions.

During her visit to Kennedy Space Center, Millie Savage visited the Space Station Processing Facility, the Granular Mechanics and Regolith Operations Lab, and facilities of commercial B-SURE team members. (Photo courtesy of Yinjie Tang)

WashU’s team includes Fuzhong Zhang and Yinjie Tang, professors of energy, environmental & chemical engineering in McKelvey Engineering; Jinjin Diao, a staff scientist in EECE; and Himadri Pakrasi, a George William and Irene Koechig Freiberg Professor in Arts & Sciences. The researchers are testing the boundaries of what microbial species, such as yeasts and algae, can do with limited resources. The ability to produce needed materials away from Earth’s creature comforts will be critical to achieving humankind’s long-term aspirations in space.

Preliminary testing has already provided evidence that the team’s cultivated microorganisms may be feasible drivers of biomanufacturing in orbit, near the moon or on Mars. But, when it comes to seeding interplanetary outposts, there are compelling reasons why it’s better to be safe than sorry. To ensure the lab-tested microbial species perform as well in space as they do on Earth, the tiny toilers are taking a trip to the International Space Station (ISS) to provide data on the effects of space conditions on bioproduction.

“Our goal with sending these samples to space is to see the feasibility of life beyond Earth,” said Hakyung Lee, a graduate student in EECE who mentored Savage during her summer internship and serves as the WashU DARPA team coordinator. “We’re looking at how well various feedstocks – food for microbial species we’d grow in space – work for biomanufacturing.”

“A major motivation for my summer research was the goal of traveling to Kennedy Space Center to watch B-SURE samples get launched into space so they could be tested on the ISS,” Savage added. “Attending the conference was also an amazing opportunity to meet our NASA partners and get to know all the other people working on the DARPA project with us.”

Following the successful Aug. 26 launch to the ISS, NASA’s SpaceX Crew-7 tested the effect of microgravity on cell physiology and growth. WashU’s research team is especially keen to learn whether microbes lose their production abilities without gravity. Assuming the organisms pass this first test, future missions to the ISS will further analyze microbial utilization of alternative feedstocks under space conditions, and WashU will be involved in this advanced study of space manufacturing.

A growing partnership

As a summer researcher, Savage tested microbial growth in lunar regolith, but her role as a trailblazer extends beyond that research. Keesoo Lee, professor of biology and Savage’s adviser at Lincoln University, a land-grant and historically Black university, recruited Savage to intern in EECE at WashU as part of an ongoing partnership between the two schools.

Funded by the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Energy, the partnership includes summer research programs for Lincoln students who will work in WashU laboratories on projects related to cutting-edge biomanufacturing. Lee and Joshua Yuan, the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor and chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering in McKelvey Engineering, envision that the partnership will help develop a diverse workforce well-trained in key aspects of the emerging bioeconomy, including artificial intelligence, bioinformatics and synthetic biology.

“Millie’s experience this summer working on a project with DARPA and NASA is truly exceptional,” Lee said. “Looking ahead, we’re excited to support a pipeline of students coming to WashU to gain hands-on lab experience, make connections with research partners, and have more doors open to them as a result, whether that’s graduate school or opportunities in industry.”

Though Savage was the first Lincoln student to participate in the joint biomanufacturing project at McKelvey Engineering, she said she hopes many more of her peers will follow in her footsteps.

“This was my first research internship, but with Hakyung’s mentorship I quickly learned to take challenges in my stride and see that when something goes wrong it only gets you closer to the solution,” Savage said. “A big challenge for me was being one of the only two Black people in the room at the NASA conference. It was another challenge that I turned into motivation. When there is no seat for you at the table, you make your own table. Now, I can share my experience with my educated Black peers, and soon there will be more faces that look like me in the room with me, maybe even at our own table.”

The McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis promotes independent inquiry and education with an emphasis on scientific excellence, innovation and collaboration without boundaries. McKelvey Engineering has top-ranked research and graduate programs across departments, particularly in biomedical engineering, environmental engineering and computing, and has one of the most selective undergraduate programs in the country. With 165 full-time faculty, 1,420 undergraduate students, 1,614 graduate students and 21,000 living alumni, we are working to solve some of society’s greatest challenges; to prepare students to become leaders and innovate throughout their careers; and to be a catalyst of economic development for the St. Louis region and beyond.

Click on the topics below for more stories in those areas

Back to News