Electron-fed microbes as nutrition in uncultivated domains


Kyle Alvarado

Astronauts require about 2,800 calories every day while in space. Currently, that food is grown and processed on Earth and transported to the International Space Station. University of Alaska Fairbanks engineering student Kyle Alvarado is part of an international collaboration trying to figure out how to provide those calories more economically and sustainably. Their surprising answer: bacteria.

Bacteria can provide many of the nutrients that human beings need. Growing food in space is difficult due to a lack of a pressurized growing area, sunlight, and gravity. There is also the risk of contamination and exposure to ionizing solar radiation. Bacteria are resilient and require few resources to grow. Some bacteria can even grow using electrons from their environment.

Kyle was looking for a way to collaborate with NASA and this research provided him with the perfect Master’s degree project. According to him, his primary role “is to design a scalable food production method using electro-active bacteria”. To prepare, Kyle took a graduate biotechnology course and published an article on a food scaling method. A second article about hydrogen-oxidizing bacteria is under peer reviewed. As he says, “I believe it is important for an engineer to learn and adapt to any scientific field.”

His next step is to “determine which calorie source — the bacteria or their byproducts — is more energy effective”. Like many researchers, Kyle’s work has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. A trip to NASA Ames Research Center was cancelled in March when the United States went into quarantine. But he says, “conference calls with Dr. John Hogan at NASA Ames allowed me to gather the information that essentially completed the approach of the project.”

Finding a sustainable method for growing food in space is integral to our success in space, especially as we move beyond Earth’s orbit and build outposts on the Moon and Mars. But Kyle’s research has applications here on Earth too. In the event of a sun-obscuring global catastrophe — asteroid impact, nuclear war or extensive volcanic eruptions — conventional agriculture could be disrupted or fail. If that happens, Kyle’s space-mission bacteria production methods might prove crucial to our species’ survival here on Earth. - Kim Morris


Name: Kyle Alvarado, Assistant Professor

Institution: University of Alaska Fairbanks

Mentor: David Denkenberger, ddenkenberger@alaska.edu

Award: Graduate Student, Research Grant

Funding Period: 2020 to 2021