NASA continues research into cellulose, seeing a number of uses for it in space

NASA is researching cellulose, hoping astronauts on long missions will be able to grow their own plants for food, converting any inedible plant parts into biofuels, food, or chemicals that can be used in space.

"Turning waste into resources is our purpose," NASA Ames researcher Chad Paavola said in a statement.  "We're working on a process that converts cellulose into sugar.  Cellulose is a common substance found in all plants, including wheat straw, corn stalks, and woody material. Its sugar can be converted into other resources, such as food, fuels or chemicals."

Specifically, cellulose is a raw material in high abundance, but gaining access to the sugar in cellulose continues to be difficult.  Researchers have had a difficult time breaking down polymers -- the structure sugar in cellulose is arranged in -- but the use of enzyme complexes identified as cellulosomes can convert cellulose into proper sugar.  

Cellulosomes are enzyme or bacteria complexes that don't operate inside the cell -- and are absolutely vital in breaking down cellulose.  In the lab, NASA researchers created enzyme complexes mimicking natural cellulosomes, and worked from there.

"By placing the microbes' DNA sequences, or genetic blueprints, for these component parts into a common laboratory bacterium, the scientists were able to create a protein structure to act as a scaffold to attach enzymes with different functions, allowing the enzymes to work together more efficiently," according to the NASA press release.

On Earth, cellulose can be obtained by cotton and wood pulp, but it's unknown how it would be gathered in space.  Cellulosic ethanol is said to reduce greenhouse gases - and can be obtained from almost every type of natural, free-growing plant or tree -- which makes it a viable resource here on Earth.  As research into cellulose continues for methods that can be used on Earth, its role in space could be just as important.

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