Starship Medicine Production from Algae

by Dr. Mark Edwards

The production of 100 years of starship medicines without resupply represents a substantial challenge. Since the starship cannot depend on finding nutrients or medicines suitable for human life on the voyage, everything aboard the starship must be recycled and reused. In the case of medicines, some advanced and even new compounds must be available in many strains of algae in the starship algae library.

Modern medicines require a long and expensive supply chain processing, formulation, encapsulation, packing, storage, shipping, and receiving. The supply chain often accounts for over 80% of the product cost. Starship medicines skip most of the supply chain functions. Crewmembers eat the algae directly or acquire the needed compounds, including pharmaceuticals, in their foods.

Pharmaceutical companies today make a “one-size-fits-all” pill for a specific health issue. With the tremendous variation in human anatomy, some medicines work great for some patients but poorly for others. The starship medical production system will have the capacity to make standard medical compounds from various algae species, which crewmembers may take on an as needed basis.

Starship Smart Microfarm Example

ASU Polytechnic Laboratory for Algae Biotechnology Research. Photo courtesy of Nano Voltaix, Inc.

The starship will have DNA profiling capability, which enables the system to create individualized medicines that work optimally for each crewmember. A robot (currently named Dr. Oz) will use its artificial intelligence system to integrate patient genetic, psychological and physical information for medical diagnosis. Dr. Oz will provide each crewmember with a lifestyle, exercise, and diet plan to optimize preventive and therapeutic care.

Dr. Oz will enable stratified medicine that includes proteomic profiling, metabolomic analysis, and genetic testing. The crewmember’s metabolic profile enables Dr. Oz to tailor medical care to each individual. The stratified medical model develops companion diagnostics of molecular assays that track levels of proteins, genes, or specific mutations to provide a specific therapy for an individual’s condition. Dr. Oz stratifies disease status, selecting the proper medication, and tailoring dosages to that crewmember’s specific needs. Dr. Oz can assess each crewmember’s risk factor for a large set of conditions and tailor individual preventative treatments. Crewmembers will have the option of taking health supplements or ingesting their tailored nutrients in their functional foods.

Functional foods

Functional foods incorporate special added ingredients to give the food new functionality that benefits health or avoids disease, such as improving brain function or reducing cholesterol. These processed foods sell for a premium, due to their health-promoting additives, such as vitamins or antioxidants.

Modern Functional Foods


Nutraceuticals such as omega-3 fatty acids are popular in functional foods because these food supplements also promote health and help avoid disease. Consumers buy nutraceuticals to improve health and vitality, avoid chronic diseases, delay aging, and increase life expectancy. Nutraceuticals include antioxidants where molecules inhibit oxidation and possibly aging. Oxidation transfers electrons from a substance to an oxidizing agent and reduces free radicals that can start chain reactions and cause cell damage or death. Probiotics are live microorganisms that provide benefit to the host organism and are often added to yogurt and food supplements.

Phytochemicals are plant-based chemicals such as beta-carotene and dietary fibers. Dozens of phytochemicals are being tested for therapeutic benefits. Taxol, the cancer drug recently won FDA approval.

Modern Nutraceuticals – Metabolite Glutathione


Nutritional products supplement normal diets with additional protein, macronutrients, micronutrients, and essential vitamins, and minerals and trace elements. Consumers take nutritional supplements to enhance vitality, immunity, joint mobility, cardiovascular care, stress or weight management, fiber, and metabolism, diabetic or cholesterol management.


Cosmeceuticals include an array of algae-based advanced compounds commonly found in modern foods to smooth, protect, and heal skin. These compounds promote skin regeneration and produce antioxidants and oils for anti-aging formulations.

Algae emulsions, where tiny droplets of oil dispersed in water, are easily absorbed through the skin because the alga cells are only about 5 microns across. Algae preservatives prevent microorganism growth in cosmetics. Algae thickening agents use polymers that change and stabilize product consistency.

Algae fragrances, colors, and pH stabilizers add sensory value to cosmetics. Algae moisturizers repair dry, burned, or scaly skin. Shampoos and soaps clean with surfactants, surface-active agents. Algae stabilizers make lipstick water insoluble, which is critical for formulating lipstick. Algae can provide imitation tans and change color on contact with skin.

Algae vitamins

Algae provide of all the essential nutrients, vitamins, minerals, and trace elements essential for health and vitality. Algae can satisfy any appetite with a broad spectrum of aromas, colors, tastes, and textures. Algae have a high content of glutamic acid that stimulate taste receptors, amplify taste differentiation and the desire to consume algae for its good taste.

Algae absorb a wealth of mineral elements that concentrate about one third of its dry biomass. The mineral macronutrients include sodium, calcium, magnesium, potassium, chlorine, sulfur, and phosphorus, while the micronutrients include iodine, iron, zinc, copper, selenium, molybdenum, fluoride, manganese, boron, nickel, and cobalt. On average, one tablespoon of dry algae provides the same amount of:

  • Calcium as ½ cup of milk, 1½-cup of soybeans, 8 carrots, or 22 tomatoes.
  • Magnesium as 2½ cups of milk, ½-cup of soybeans, 9 carrots, or 6 tomatoes.
  • Iron as 32 cups of milk, ⅓ cup of soybeans, 11 carrots, or 5 tomatoes.

Algae are also rich in iodine and selenium, critical trace elements that are highly variable in food supplies by geographic region. These minerals have been associated with endemic deficiency disorders throughout history. Algae concentrate these trace minerals and only small amounts of algae (one tablespoon) provide sufficient levels of these nutrients. Starship nutrition will benefit from algae nutrients integrated in natural and functional foods, which makes nutrient supplements superfluous.

Beta-carotene (provitamin A) is particularly high in algae, and algae powder is a common source of beta-carotene in dietary supplements and functional foods. Algae produce antioxidant vitamins (C and E) in concentrations several times higher than land plants. Vitamin C can help crewmembers avoid scurvy. Vitamin E helps avoid neurological problems due to poor nerve conduction and anemia due to oxidative damage to red blood cells.

Algae are a good source of all seven B vitamins including vitamin B12. Algae are unique as a plant source of vitamin B12 and algae (particularly nori) is currently recommended as a dietary supplement for vegetarians who desire to obtain vitamin B12 from a natural, non-animal source.

Algae provide a mineral profile superior to that of land plants and even milk or soybeans. Mineral availability from land plants, particularly legumes and grain, is often compromised by phytic acid, which binds the minerals rendering them unavailable for absorption into the blood stream. In one investigation, phytic acid was undetectable in four species of algae, and iron absorption was 3.5 fold greater for marine algae compared to rice. Algal iron is easily absorbed by the human body because its blue pigment, phycocyanin, forms soluble complexes with iron and other minerals during digestion, making iron more bioavailable. Hence, unlike iron derived from any of the land plants, the bioavailability of algal iron is comparable to that of heme iron in meats.

Algae’s rich set of nutrients, antioxidants, enzymes and extracts, boost the immune system and enhance the body’s ability to grow new blood cells. Algae are rich in phytonutrients and functional nutrients that activate digestive and immune systems. Algae compounds accelerate production of the humeral system (antibodies and cytokines,) allowing it to better protect against invading germs. Algae components also activate the cellular immune system including T-cells, macrophages, B-cells and anti-cancer natural killer cells.

Starship medicines can be produced with algae in a sustainable manner during the long flight. The algae library provides the source for the advanced compounds required to create specialty functional foods and medicines. The estimated 10 million total species assure that nearly any compound can be produced. The starship will carry an algae library of 120,000 algae species, marine, freshwater, and terrestrial, in a container the size of a refrigerator that acts as a controlled environment seed safe. Additional algae species will find safe harbor in the starship animals, plants, and soil. The automated system will catalogue each algae specimen for constituent compounds and freeze-dry them for indefinite storage.

Modern medicines, derived from plant and animals sources, currently take extensive time, money, and resources to produce. Algae-based medicines on the starship will grow in a few weeks, will not require financial inputs because the process uses recycled nutrients, and will regenerate rather than consume natural resources. Algae-based medicines will soon displace traditional medicine production because the algae process creates cleaner medications, faster, while preserving precious natural resources.