Biotechnology for healthy astronauts in Space

To enable sustainable presence of humans in space, it is essential to provide the space travelers with the necessary tools for autonomous oxygen, water, food and medicine production in space. This can only be done via space compatible biotechnology and thorough understanding of the behavior and evolution of the biological systems, under space conditions.

The Arthrospira-B flight experiment is a pioneering experiment to test and demonstrate that it is feasible to run a photobioreactor in space, producing oxygen and edible health promoting biomass, as sustainable resources for the space travelers. A first-of-a-kind space compliant photobioreactor was developed, for cultivation of an axenic culture of the edible photosynthetic cyanobacterium Arthrospira sp. strain PCC8005. Four of these test scale bioreactors (50ml liquid volume) were installed in the Biolab incubator, in the Columbus module of ISS. The experiment was spanning a total bioreactor operation duration in space of 35 days (20 December 2017 - 24 January 2018). The bioreactors were monitored live from ground, with daily data download link, and commands were given from ground to adjust settings or collect samples. Crew activity allowed for new feed supply to the reactor and sample collection and storage in ISS, waiting for download for post flight analysis (samples expected May 2018). It was possible to maintain a photosynthetic active culture of Arthrospira sp., in the bioreactor for more than 1 month, in ISS, under space conditions, and it was possible to implement successfully ground commands to adapt temperature or light intensity or fluid circulation in the bioreactor. The oxygen produced by the bioreactors, could be provided to the cabin, for consumption by the crew. The future biochemical and biomolecular analysis (genomic, transcriptomic, proteomic) of the reactor effluent and biomass harvested during the 5 weeks of experiment operation will provide a better view about the productivity of the bioreactors and outcome of the bioprocess in space.

This experiment opens a path of further bioreactor technology development and implementation in space, for a multitude of bio-applications, including water purification, resource recovery, food production, and biopharmaceutical applications.

This experiment is part of the international MELiSSA-program, of ESA, aiming the development of a bio-regenerative life support system to support future long-duration missions of astronauts in space.


Natalie Leys (1)
Wietse Heylen (1)
Ilse Coninx (1)
Pieter Monsieurs (1)
Felice Mastroleo (1)
Steven Hens (2)
Chris De Smet (2)
Danang Sukmawanto (2)
Herwig Hellinckx (2)
Andres Janssens (2)
Ruddy Wattiez (3)
Céline Laroche (4)
Laurent Poughon (4)
Gilles Dussap (4)
Christel Paillé (5)
Christophe Lasseur (5)


(1) Belgian Nuclear Research Center SCKCEN, Mol, Belgium
(2) QinetiQ Space N.V., Kruibeke, Belgium
(3) University of Mons UMons, Mons, Belgium
(4) University Clermont Auvergne UCA, Clermont-Ferrand, France
(5) European Space Agency ESA, Noordwijk, The Netherlands

Presenting author

Natalie Leys, Head of Microbiology Research Team; Space program coordinator, Belgian Nuclear Research Center
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