Medicines for a 100-Year Starship Discovery Flight

by Dr. Mark Edwards

NASA and DARPA sponsored the 100-year Starship Symposium in Orlando to develop a viable and sustainable model for persistent, long-term, private-sector investment into the myriad disciplines needed to make long-distance space travel practicable and feasible.

The genesis of this study is to foster a rebirth of a sense of wonder among students, academia, industry, researchers and the general population to consider “why not?” The project promotes discovery and engages inquiring minds to tackle whole new classes of research and development related to the issues surrounding long duration, long distance spaceflight.

DARPA contends that the useful, unanticipated consequences of such research will have benefit to the Department of Defense and to NASA, as well as the private and commercial sector. This endeavor requires an understanding of questions such as:

  • How do organizations evolve and maintain focus and momentum for 100 years or more?
  • What models support long-term technology development?
  • What resources and financial structures have initiated and sustained prior settlements of “new worlds”?

DARPA and NASA selected yours truly to develop the medical plan for the 100-year Starship, which is titled: “Sustainable Vitality, Sex, and Medicines for Extended Space Exploration.” Several posts on sustainable algae-based medicines are derived from the 100-year Starship project.

Algae-based Medicines for a 100-Year Starship Voyage of Discovery

Each human body consists of roughly 100 trillion cells organized biologically. The 100-year starship challenge requires sustaining the health and vitality of living cells for all crewmembers, as well as their pets, food animals, and plants. The starship will use a closed food and medical production system that operates sustainably for 100 years without resupply.

The starship lifestyle will practice preventative medicine to maximize health and vitality and avoid predictable health insults. Crewmembers and animals will manage health issues with fresh, natural, and functional foods and medicines produced on the starship from algae and other microorganisms.

A 100-year space flight may make stops but crewmembers cannot depend on sourcing medical or life-support resources. Therefore, the life support system, including food, air, water, waste management, and medicines must be completely sustainable with onboard resources.

Smart microfarms are green solar energy biofactories that use solar energy and algae to recover, recycle, and reuse starship resources in a 360 degree closed loop. When sunlight is not available, artificial light enabled by an auxiliary fuel cell or nuclear power system may provide photosynthetic energy. Smart microfarms also employ heterotrophic algae that grow in closed, dark fermentation tanks with sugar for energy and other nutrients in recycled water. Smart microfarms enable crewmembers to create a nearly infinite variety of naturally biodiverse foods, feeds, co-products, and medicines.

Smart microfarms are algae-based microcrop platforms that can produce foods with the full spectrum of macro- and micro-nutrients, vitamins, minerals, trace elements, and antioxidants. These adaptable biofactories can grow regular, functional, or freedom foods, as well as valuable nutraceuticals, nutritionals, pharmaceutics, medicines, and vaccines.

Bioregenerative life support

The 100-year starship flight may enable crewmembers to go into hibernation, dormancy, or suspended animation periods occasionally, but the life support system must operate continuously. The plants and animals that journey with the crew also require continuous attention, possibly by robots. Algae and higher plants act as the foundation for the life support system. Biomimicry reproduces the cycles of life to generate and recycle clean oxygen, water, and food. Algae recover vital nutrients, while algae and higher plants supply oxygen and remove carbon dioxide and other unwanted gasses such as methane from the starship air.

The starship will offer light gravity to crewmembers, probably from centrifugal force. Gravity enhances circulation, health, and vitality in animals and plants. Lack of gravity creates an uneven spread of water in plant roots, reducing absorption capability. An auxiliary solar or fuel cell will support temperature control and air circulation.

The sustainable life support system proposed here, smart microfarms, represent an advanced form of controlled environment agriculture, (CEA), that address critical life-support needs for 100 years. A University of Arizona team led by Gene Giacomelli, Director the CEA Center designed and built a CEA system that has operated for seven years at the South Pole. Giacomelli and his team have built a lunar greenhouse that proves CAS systems can grow food anywhere, including space.

Controlled Environment Agriculture Example

Many of the algae production elements for smart microfarms derive from the R&D of Professors Milton Sommerfeld and Hu Qiang, Directors of the Arizona Center for Algae Research and Biotechnology, Arizona State University Polytechnic. The research center trains algae scientists, technicians, and entrepreneurs, and provides a test-bed for all forms of cultivated algae production systems.


Nature provides the inspiration to solve the 100-year starship challenge. Biometrics studies the formation, structure, or function of biologically produced substances and materials such as enzymes or silk and biological mechanisms and processes such as protein synthesis or photosynthesis. Biomimicry models natural processes for synthesizing similar products that mimic natural ones.

Smart microfarms imitate nature in recovering waste nutrients and reassembling them in algae biomass usable directly as food, feed, or medicines. The algae biomass may feed fish, fowl, and meat animals, or deliver nutrients to plants. The flexible production platforms can produce nearly any biologically produced substance or material produced with terrestrial plants or crude oil.

Land-based plants evolved from algae 500 million years ago. Therefore, some algae species contains nearly any compound found in terrestrial plants. Crude oil is composed of algae from ancient oceans exposed to over 400 million years of nature’s heat and pressure. Consequently, products made from fossil fuels can be made in less than four weeks with a renewable source–algae.

Currently, producers source most medicines, vaccines, and health supplements from land plants or animals. The process takes a long time, is costly, and consumes substantial fossil resources that are not replaceable. Production also degrades the air, water, soils, and ecosystems.

ARID Algae Production Raceway

Smart microfarms enable production of superior products faster, easier, and with substantially less cost than traditional health products. For example, flu vaccines are grown in eggs but the process is slow, costly, an unreliable. The eggs must incubate for about half a year and it often takes two eggs to yield a single dose of vaccine. The eggs may spoil and produce the target virus at varying rates. The serum produced may be too weak or too impure to provide immunity with the lowest possible incidence of side effects. Vaccines have been grown in cow’s milk and other animals but the process is typically slow, expensive, and insufficiently reliable.

Extensive plant types and systems that have been used for expression of vaccine antigens including various Nicotiana spp., Arabidopsis thaliana, alfalfa, spinach, potatoes, duckweed, strawberries, carrots, tomatoes, aloe and single-celled algae. Designer proteins have been expressed in seeds of maize, rice, beans, and tobacco, in potatoes, tomatoes, and strawberries, in suspension cell cultures of tobacco and maize, in hairy root cultures, and in transformed chloroplasts of a variety of plant species.

Edible fruits and tubers, including tomatoes have been genetically engineered to express a variety of antigens, including rabies virus glycoprotein, respiratory syncytial virus F glycoprotein, a hepatitis E virus surface protein, a Yersinia pestis F1-V antigen, and a synthetic HBV/HIV antigen. Under optimal conditions, plant-based vaccines require a full growing period, often 100 days. Large volumes of the produce must be grown because each plant provides only a small amount of the target antigen or protein. Harvest and processing add substantial costs.

The algae equivalent can express vaccine antigens or therapeutic proteins in a few weeks. Additional production is immediate as the microfarm robotic operator may harvest half the target biomass daily. Production time may be cut to a fraction of traditional methods while input costs are substantially lower because the microfarm uses renewable energy and wastewater for nutrients. For some vaccines and therapeutic compounds, extraction is not necessary. Crewmembers may eat or drink the algae without additional processing. Cells absorb the target therapeutics easily because microalgae are only about 5 μ.

The starship model provides a template that can improve the speed, cost, and sustainability of modern medicine production. As algae producers create more advanced compounds useful for medicines, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, nutraceuticals, and cosmeceuticals, these industries will shift to sustainable and affordable therapeutic solutions from algae.