When astronauts get to Mars, they won’t just have to worry about radiation wrecking their bodies, they’ll also have to worry about it killing their electronics.

Repairing electronics is a major problem for space exploration, says Lynn Rothschild, an astrobiologist at NASA. She and her team have been working on a solution using bacteria to recycle metals in broken electronics so they can print new tech on the fly in outer in space itself. This project is one of thirteen proposals of strange technological innovations that can expand the future of space travel that have been funded by NASA.

It’s prohibitively expensive for NASA to ship metals and extra tech to Mars along with a human crew, but electronics have a limited life span. “We are so dependent on electronics, and people who go to Mars — or anywhere in space — are even more dependent,” Rothschild pointed out in her talk at the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts Symposium in Raleigh, North Carolina on Tuesday. “Our vision is to use synthetic biology —- genetic engineering — to enable a smart manufacturing tool to use the Martian atmosphere to tailor printable electronics.”

We're talking this, but with metal from microbes in space.
We're talking this, but with metal from microbes in space.

After circuits of broken tech, or Martian gas and soil, are ground up into a slurry, the material can be purified into constituent metals by adding organisms that eat out the silicon. Then Rothschild’s lab envisions sending in a wave of microbes that genetically engineered to collect the different metals. From there the metals can be collected and used to print new electronics, potentially on flexible surfaces to make them even more useful.

Rothschild presented this as the new life cycle of electronics recycling in space.
Rothschild presented this as the new life cycle of electronics recycling in space.

Since we will have to strand rovers and satellites when radiation eventually fries them, finding a way to make new electronics in space would be a major step forward in getting astronauts to Mars. And Rothschild’s lab has already modified E. coli to bio-mine copper and turn it into printer ink. She’s working towards building actual transistors, and getting the tech up to the moon on a future Google X trip to test the microbial mining in space.

So forget the Apple Store — on Mars, you just need to keep some handy microbes nearby to fix your laptop.

Photos via Giphy, Lynn Rothschild, NIAC