Living High-Altitude Balloon

High-altitude balloons are used to perform experiments in “near space” at 60,000-120,000 ft. (18000-36000m). However, conditions at such altitude are not particularly friendly and balloons have to compete with ultraviolet radiation, bad weather and the troubles of long distance communication. The trick is to send up a live entity to make repairs as needed. A group of students from Stanford University and Brown University repurposed nature in their solution. Enter Bioballoon: a living high-altitude research balloon.

Instead of using inorganic materials, the Stanford-Brown International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) team designed microbes that grow the components required to build various tools and structures with the hope of making sustained space research feasible. Being made of living material, Bioballoon can be grown and re-grown with the same bacteria, lowering the cost of manufacturing and improving repeatability.

Bioballoon is engineered to be modular, with different strains of bacteria satisfying different requirements. One strain of bacteria has been modified to produce hydrogen in order to inflate the balloon while the balloon itself is made of a natural Kevlar-latex mix created by other cells. Additionally, the team is using Melanin, the molecule responsible for skin color and our personal UV protection to introduce native UV resistance into the balloon’s structure. And, while the team won’t be deploying a glider, they’ve designed biological thermometers and small molecule sensors that can be grown on the balloon’s surface. They don’t have any logging functionality yet, but these cellular hacks could amalgamate as a novel scientific instrument: cheap, light and durable.

Living things too organic for your taste? Don’t worry, we’ve got some balloons that won’t grow on you.

25 thoughts on “Living High-Altitude Balloon

  1. So it’s sort of like a floating version of one of those totally enclosed glass ball things that are filled with algae and shrimp and such as a completely closed ecosystem? Or also basically a very small, floating version of the Earth? Does the Earth even “float” exactly? Anyway.

    How do you manage things like total Hydrogen output or other runaway processes?

    Lastly, latex rubber is amazingly poor at UV resistance. How do microbes monitor and repair latex or aramid fibers for that matter?

    1. >>How do you manage things like total Hydrogen output or other runaway processes?
      Put some thermocouples, a cell counter (flow cytometer), and assume some reaction rate, then input feedstock according to that rate. Bonus points for monitoring the limiting reagent and plugging it’s concentration into a PID to control the feed.

      The easiest & coarsest way to repair latex is, you don’t.
      Just like your body constantly sheds skin and hair one could figure out a degredation rate and simply innoculate the balloon with an appropriate cell density and feed rate to constantly produce new material.

      As for Earth, it doesn’t float, it just falls at the same rate as the rest of the solar system.

      1. Concern would be more of interactions with other organisms to be honest, assuming this is a mixed environment. There would be an extremely complex level of interaction, not something you could solve by just feeding more of a single limiting reagent into the mix. You are basically trying to create a living stomach only you are trying to do more than just digest feedstock. That’s surprisingly difficult to do artificially, even on Earth.

        How do you plan on constantly feed new material to this? I am unaware of any bacteria that are able to grow or produce either aramid or vulcanized latex material. They are certainly not growing this balloon on Earth and then launching it. The bigger issue though would be that the degradation rate of latex in literally outer space would be significant. It is already high enough when you place it under fairly short periods of terrestrial UV exposure.

        How fast do other galaxies fall? :)

        1. >>You are basically trying to create a living stomach only you are trying to do more than just digest feedstock. That’s surprisingly difficult to do artificially, even on Earth.
          Yes and no.
          It’s hard to create an abiotic environment, even the clean rooms used to build rovers/satellites have unique microbial communities in them and it’s a serious problem when we intend to explore extraterrestrial biomes.
          I don’t know the intended mission life of these balloons and over time there will almost certainly be other microbes that establish themselves in these balloons. That said, it’s sort of self limiting since there are only so many microbes that can survive on the same feed stock as the desired microbes. Others may be able to survive on the dead E. Coli but so long as they don’t use the same feed stock it shouldn’t be an issue. Antibiotics may be useful here. Much like brewing once a sufficient cell density of the desired microbes are established they will out compete almost any interlopers. E. coli has a reproduction rate of around 20 minutes. So long as other microbes don’t have a replication cycle less than that they don’t stand a chance.

          >>How do you plan on constantly feed new material to this?
          Syringe pumps? Peristaltics? There’s a number of ways that would work. As with conventional lift mechanisms you’re still limited by the maximum take-off weight and lift generated by the ‘fuel’.

          >> I am unaware of any bacteria that are able to grow or produce either aramid or vulcanized latex material
          That isn’t an issue here. The site goes into a limited amount of detail in their papers but microbial latex doesn’t require vulcanization to be roughly as resilient. Again, even if it were as fragile, just get a cell density that produces latex at the same rate that it degrades.

          >>How fast do other galaxies fall? :)
          Ask Newton?
          The Milky Way has a mass of 200-600 Sols and 99% of the mass of the solar system is in the sun (sol) so we’ll call it 100%. Assume 300 sols as the mass of the center of the galaxy and plug that into the gravity equation, (G [N m^2/kg^2] * 300 sol{2E30kg = 1 sol}) / 625k ly. That’s a gigantic unit conversion headache but roughly how fast the solar system falls towards the center of the Milky Way. If you really want to know I’m sure google can provide the relevant conversions.
          As for how fast galaxies fall to the center of the universe, that all depends on which galaxy you’re in ;)
          Every galaxy seems to be the center of the universe when viewed from that galaxy. Since the universe is rapidly expanding I don’t think that’s a question that makes any sense. But maybe I’m wrong.

          1. The Milky Way only weighs 200 – 600 Sols? And 1 Sol = the mass of the Sun? How’s that so? Aren’t there thousands of stars in our galaxy?

            As far as the Universe, surely gravity would mean we’re all falling together towards each other, in one overwhelming direction depending on where most of the stuff is? But then there’s the expansion to think about, where space itself (right?) gets bigger. And I suppose gravity only travels at 1C, and we can only know of the Universe within 14 billion light years of us.

            And that’s about where my head starts spinning.

          2. >>The Milky Way only weighs 200 – 600 Sols?
            Woops! There was supposed to be a ‘billion’ in there.

            >>As far as the Universe, surely gravity would mean we’re all falling together towards each other, in one overwhelming direction depending on where most of the stuff is?
            Sort of?
            We orbit the center of our galaxy but the galaxies themselves move according to some more complicated processes. Involving galactic super clusters, inflation, and whatever dark matter is.

            >>..we can only know of the Universe within 14 billion light years of us.
            Yes & no.
            The visible universe is 93 Gly across. We can see ‘further’ than 14 Gly since the stars weren’t 93 Gly away when the light left. But what we’re seeing is years, millennia, or eons in the past. So depending on what you’re looking it it may not exist as you see it or even at all.

      2. >As for Earth, it doesn’t float, it just falls at the same rate as the rest of the solar system.

        This is messing me up. Large-scale astrophysics is weird. I’ll stick to circuits.

    1. “By replacing the monomers 1,4-phenylene-diamine and terephthaloyl chloride with a single biologically produced monomer, para-aminobenzoic acid (pABA), our team can manufacture poly-pABA, a cost-efficient and ecologically sound p-aramid Kevlar® analogue.”

      “Our primary goal is to optimize the production of pABA by identifying and isolating genes relevant for pABA synthesis and transforming them in Escherichia coli (E. coli).”

      Interesting. They are in fact trying to grow a modified aramid type fiber “production means” using biological sources. Reading through it, it appears that they have not quite perfected the technique yet but it still seems promising.

      How amenable is this pABA material to crosslinking onto existing pABA material?

  2. How about making the balloon out of a more durable material and simply sacrificing payload capacity. The drawback is cost… but if you are resorting to this living balloon craziness, then cost isn’t a concern, huh?

    As for hydrogen replenishment, it can be accomplished by either carrying water or ammonia as a non-renewable hydrogen source OR harvesting water/hydrogen from the environment as a renewable source. Again, you’ll reduce your payload capacity per unit $, but hey, you’ll have a stable near space research laboratory for pennies on the dollar when compared to the alternatives.

    1. Have you seen The Blob? JK

      Sounds like modified Chlamydomonas reinhardtii would just enrich the diversity of the landing site. It won’t grow crazy-fast like alge does and turn entire lakes green or anything… ohh, it is an alge.
      I’m optimistic; it is single-celled unlike the junk that clogs everything and winds up around boat propellers.
      Hopefully there isn’t a fire hazard from the hydrogen ballon stuck in a tree though. I’m sure they would be tracking the ballons for recovery and analysis.

  3. By its nature you can’t deploy this in a closed laboratory. These recombinant organisms would have to meet relevant government regulations for open release to the outside environment, not a BSL1 laboratory, and this seems like an intrinsically hard and expensive bottleneck for deployment of this project by students.

    1. You mean you can’t deploy this OUTSIDE a closed laboratory? Yup I would worry about massively genetically engineered stuff like this being left to float around the environment.

      This isn’t what I’m worried about, but wouldn’t it be interesting if part of the membrane stuck to itself? And formed a bubble, which would continue to fill with hydrogen extracted from water vapour. And then eventually it’s buoyancy or wind or weight or whatever causes the bubble to fall off, and carry on independently. Then 2 of them float around, eating clouds and sunlight and dust or whatever else, reproducing and form a species of floating bacterial colonies.

      People have suggested things along those lines in the past for terraforming Venus. Apparently without it’s greenhouse effect, it could be tolerable to live on. So you’d set gene-modified organisms to seed it’s atmosphere. They’d float around, converting CO2 back into oxygen, and generally convert the acids and other unpleasantness into nice Earth-like compounds. This is an idea I read about in the 1980s. This could be a step along that path. If we wanted to.

      1. I was just yesterday thinking about how it would be cool if there was some kind of floating organism that fed on sunlight, for birds to eat it and form a whole ecosystem in the sky much like that in the ocean. It could pose an issue if aerial algal blooms blot out the sky, though.

  4. How are the microbes supposed to be still active in “near space”?
    Are the “balloon maintaining” microbes supposed to go inside of it? then what about the melanin producing ones? If the microbes are outside, how are they supposed to have nutrients (e coli can apparently live without oxygen) to keep producing polymers and stuff? Won’t the growth medium dry at such low pressure? a second pressure skin around the growth medium?
    If the microbes dies before the balloon, is the idea to reinforce the balloon once it’s fully inflated then let the microbes die? then why not use a more resistant balloon from the start?

  5. From their site, it seems that they’re nowhere near achieving their putative aim. They’ve got microbes to produce various plastics, which is stuff we had before. But they’re nowhere near the level of getting them to live symbiotically, particularly in the form of a gas-tight balloon.

    Surely anything like this would puncture soon enough and fall out of the sky? There’d be constant tension on the skin. While the bacteria could produce various plastics, the body of the balloon itself would surely need to be made entirely from cells. They’d all need to be in contact to share their contributions to the symbiotic whole.

    I think this is on the level of “We’ve got bacteria that can extract iron from the ground! Great! Let’s grow a space shuttle!”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s