Innovative Brown Scholar Revolutionizes Vegetable Production and Waste Management for Future Mars Missions.

Emmanuel Mendoza, Junior Aerospace Engineer, is Growing Pea Plants from Simulated Martian Soil and Fertilizer from Black Soldier Fly Flass (aka poop) to Help Astronauts Grow Food and Manage Waste on Mars 

By New York Times, Sarah Scoles 

Sarah Scoles previously wrote about simulated planets and the origins of “Mars Jars” for Science Times. 

At first it was just one flower, but Emmanuel Mendoza, an undergraduate student at Texas A&M University, had worked hard to help it bloom. When this five-petaled thing burst forth from his English pea plant collection in late October, and then more flowers and even pea pods followed, he could also see, a little better, the future it might foretell on another world millions of miles from Earth. 

These weren’t just any pea plants. Some were grown in soil meant to mimic Mars’s inhospitable regolith, the mixture of grainy, eroded rocks and minerals that covers the planet’s surface. To that simulated regolith, Mr. Mendoza had added fertilizer called frass — the waste left after black soldier fly larvae are finished eating and digesting. Essentially, bug manure. 

The goal for Mr. Mendoza and his collaborators was to investigate whether frass and the bugs that created it might someday help astronauts grow food and manage waste on Mars. Black soldier fly larvae could consume astronauts’ organic waste and process it into frass, which could be used as fertilizer to coax plants out of alien soil. Humans could eat the plants, and even food made from the larvae, producing more waste for the cycle to continue. 

While that might not ultimately be the way astronauts grow food on Mars, they will have to grow food. “We can’t take everything with us,” said Lisa Carnell, director for NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division. 

But gardening doesn’t just require a plot of land, a bit of water, a beam of sunlight. It also requires very animate ingredients: the insects, like black soldier flies, and microorganisms that keep these ecological systems in working order. A trip to Mars for a long-term stay, then, won’t just involve humans. It will also involve creeping, crawling carry-ons most people don’t think about when they envision brave explorers stepping foot on new worlds. 

Space travelers haven’t yet gone very far for very long. 

“Currently, when you’re going into space, it’s more like going on a prolonged camping trip,” said Scott Parazynski, a former NASA astronaut who spent nearly two months in space. Astronauts bring freeze-dried food (and flavor enhancers like hot sauce). If they’re on the International Space Station, they might get to look at, but rarely consume, fresh greens from an experimental lettuce plot. 

“It’s a far cry from the kitchen downstairs and the spice rack,” Dr. Parazynski said. 

To stay for an extended time on the surface of Mars, though, astronauts won’t be able to rely on their space pantries. They’ll need Martian gardens. And Martian gardens will need a little help — maybe from black soldier fly larvae and their excretions. 

“They’re very voracious eaters,” said Hellen Elissen, a researcher at Wageningen University and Research in the Netherlands. “They eat almost anything.” And if you feed them well, they’ll make a lot of frass. 

In the past five or 10 years scientists have started to use that frass — rich in nitrogen, potassium, phosphorous and also bacteria — as fertilizer. The material also contains chitin, from the insects’ bodies, and leftover organic matter. Dr. Elissen recently published a review article about how frass affects plants and soil, and one of her main takeaways was that the value of the insects’ waste coincides with the value of their food. Grass? Frass suffers. Give the larvae higher-energy food scraps? Jackpot. 

“You know what they say about you are what you eat?” she said. “The same goes for larvae.” 

Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomology professor at Texas A&M University, knows this well after 25 years of studying black soldier flies. And he’s recruited others to his cause. A graduate student, Noah Lemke, for instance, arrived at Texas A&M to research black soldier flies’ reproductive behavior. Through the university’s Aggie Research Program, which lets graduate students recruit undergraduates for specific projects, he met Mr. Mendoza, an aerospace engineering major who had tried to grow radishes in simulated Martian soil in high school. 

“His project header was ‘Black soldier flies can feed the world, but we need more of them,’” Mr. Mendoza said. Mr. Mendoza thought maybe the flies could, instead, help feed another world. 

“I thought, ‘Well, what’s to stop me from using this as a catalyst to develop my interest in space agriculture?’” he said. 

Soon the idea for a whole system came together. The larvae could eat astronauts’ food waste and produce frass to fertilize bad alien soil, which could then produce food plants. Then the larvae themselves could be ground into a protein source, which astronauts — or animals they might bring along — could consume. “You have this system where humans are feeding the flies, the flies are feeding the plants and animals, the plants and animals are feeding the humans,” Mr. Mendoza said. 

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/27/science/mars-needs-insects.html

Student Spotlight

Emmanuel Mendoza

Aerospace Engineering

Noah Taylor

Biomedical Engineering

Anish Easwaran

Biomedical Engineering

Sarah Voon

Biomedical Engineering

Dawson Benner

Interdisciplinary Engineering

Cathryn Gunawan

Biomedical Engineering

Michael Frost

Aerospace Engineering

Fouzul Kansul

Biomedical Engineering

Abhinaya
Muruganandham

Biomedical Engineering

Carlos Vasquez

Carlos Vasquez, an Engineering Honors Student at Texas A&M University, explores the fascinating intersection of ethics and technology, specifically within the realm of artificial intelligence.

His research centers on understanding the effects of LLM-enabled classrooms on education and the ethical development of AI systems.

Noah Taylor

Noah Taylor, a junior Biomedical Engineering major, took 20 credit hours for the 2023 Spring semester.

He is a member of the Corps of Cadets, a member of Rudder’s Rangers (an advanced training program) and a member of the Parsons Mounted Cavalry. He is the Platoon Sergeant of Company K-1 and the coordinator of Academics, Career Readiness and Recruiting.

While taking 20 credit hours, Noah also took the MCAT a year early.

Noah has a cumulative 4.0 GPA and scored 97% on the MCAT.

He was admitted to EnMed using the E2 EnMed EAP pathway.

Anish Easwaran

Anish Easwaran, a junior Biomedical Engineering major, is a member of Engineering, Inc., the NSF I-CorpsSite program, Engineering Honors Executive Committee, Vice-President and Co-Founder of Aggies to Medicine, and TAMECT and a member of the Aggie Entrepreneurial Committee (his entrepreneurial efforts include StimuCalm, Aegis Armor, PillSafe and an app for pre-med students).

He is a Brown Foundation Freshmen Leadership Officer and was one of the three group leaders of the inaugural MSC Brown Smith UK Honors Leadership trip.

Anish and his teammates placed in the top 3 for the Rice Health Policy Hackathon, 3rd and 4th at Aggies Invent and Top 6 at Aggie Pitch.

He was a Gathright Dean’s Excellence Award winner for the College of Engineering and has a cumulative 3.9 GPA.

Anish was admitted to EnMed using the E2EnMed EAP pathway.

Sarah Voon

Sarah Voon, a junior Biomedical Engineering major, received her Aggie ring and completed her undergraduate thesis as a sophomore.

She is a Brown Foundation Freshmen Leadership Organization officer and was one of the three group leaders of the inaugural MSC Brown-Smith UK Honors Leadership trip.

Sarah was inducted into Alpha Eta Mu Beta, the National Biomedical Engineering Honor Society. She is a member of TAMECT.

Sarah has a cumulative 4.0 GPA and she took the MCAT a year early and scored 98%.

She was admitted to EnMed using the E2EnMed EAP pathway.

Dawson Benner

Dawson Benner, a junior Interdisciplinary Engineering major, spent the summer at IIT Gandhinagar, India researching the use of red carbon dots (produced from mango leaves) to: reduce cancer cells counts by 50% without damaging benign cells; close wounds between cells and increase cell counts; and differentiate neurons and cause connections between them, an avenue for treatment of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Dawson was first co-author of “Red Emitting Carbon Dots: Surface Modifications and Bioapplications” published in Nanoscale Advances.

Dawson has a cumulative 4.0 GPA and began fast-track coursework for the Master’s in Quantitative Finance at Mays Business School as a sophomore.

CATHRYN GUNAWAN

HOUSTON METHODIST SUMMER UNDERGRADUATE RESEARCH INTERNSHIP 2023

My name is Cathryn Gunawan, and I am a proud member of the Aggie Class of 2026, a biomedical engineering major, and I was admitted to the E2EnMed program. This summer I am researching in Dr. Villapol’s lab in the Department of Neurosurgery. Our lab studies the treatment of traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease through regeneration and the interaction between the gut and the brain. My research involves improving the characterization of shape changes in microglia—immune cells in the brain that cause inflammation—via 3D analysis to supplement our understanding of the neuroinflammatory response. I specifically looked at these immune cells after traumatic brain injury and treatment with probiotics to determine if probiotics are a viable treatment for traumatic brain injury. In addition to learning technical lab skills, I have also developed communication and presentation skills along with adaptability and independent thinking. I am so grateful to Mrs. Sue Smith and Mr. Craig Brown for providing and sponsoring this opportunity as well as the entire Villapol Lab for their support and encouragement. This experience has deepened my appreciation for research and broadened my understanding of the efforts that go into advancing medicine.

Michael Frost

Michael Frost, a sophomore Aerospace Engineering major, opened a makerspace, Starforge Foundry, open to students interested in engineering projects.

L-R: Brown Scholar Meghan Shimer, Craig, Michael Frost, Sue, Interim Dean Johnny Hurtado.

Starforge Foundry tools include: lathe, laser cutter, 3D printers, bandsaw, hand tools, belt/disc sander, sheetmetal brake, flaring tools, spot welder, bench grinder, soldering irons, and a miniature CNC mill.

Michael has a cumulative 4.0 GPA.

Fouzul Kansul

Fouzul Kansul, a junior Biomedical Engineering major, was a podium presenter in the graduate student category at the 2023 Houston Methodist Summer Science Symposium. Her topic was “Sex Based Differences in Calcification Patterns of Chronic Lower Extremity Peripheral Arterial Disease”.

Her presentation received first place for Audience Choice in the graduate student category and second place overall for Audience Choice among graduate, postdoc and resident presentations.

Fouzul was admitted to EnMed using the E2EnMed pathway.

Abhinaya Muruganandham

Abhinaya Murugndandham, a Junior Biomedical Engineering major, was a coauthor on computational biology research published in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications.

She was first author for an abstract with Houston Methodist research in cardiac imaging published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC). Abhinaya presented her abstract as a poster for the 72nd Annual Scientific Session of the American College of Cardiology.

She serves as Treasurer for TAMECT (Texas A&M Emergency Care Team).

Abhinaya has a cumulative 4.0 GPA and scored 100% on the MCAT.

She was admitted to EnMed using the E2EnMed EAP pathway.