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Glycogen metabolism is required for optimal cyanobacterial growth in the rapid light-dark cycle of low-Earth orbit.

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Some designs for bioregenerative life support systems to enable human space missions incorporate cyanobacteria for removal of carbon dioxide, generation of oxygen, and treatment of wastewater, as well as providing a source of nutrition. In this study, we examined the effects of the short light-dark (LD) cycle of low-Earth orbit on algal and cyanobacterial growth, approximating conditions on the International Space Station, which orbits Earth roughly every 90 min. We found that growth of green algae was similar in both normal 12 h light:12 h dark (12 h:12 h LD) and 45':45' LD cycles. Three diverse strains of cyanobacteria were not only capable of growth in short 45':45' LD cycles, but actually grew better than in 12 h:12 h LD cycles. We showed that 45':45' LD cycles do not affect the endogenous 24 h circadian rhythms of Synechococcus elongatus. Using a dense library of randomly barcoded transposon mutants, we identified genes whose loss is detrimental for the growth of S. elongatus under 45':45' LD cycles. These include several genes involved in glycogen metabolism and the oxidative pentose phosphate pathway. Notably, 45':45' LD cycles did not affect the fitness of strains that carry mutations in the biological circadian oscillator or the clock input and output regulatory pathways. Overall, this study shows that cultures of cyanobacteria could be grown under natural sunlight of low-Earth orbit and highlights the utility of a functional genomic study in a model organism to better understand key biological processes in conditions that are relevant to space travel.

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