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Sheets of plastic made by E. coli can fold into whatever shape you desire. Astronauts on long missions might one day rely on such bacterial origami to make tools on the go.

On a spacecraft, every inch of storage space is precious, says astrobiologist Lynn Rothschild of NASA’s Ames Research Center. There’s a strict limit to how much you can fit in a launch vehicle.

“You can’t take up an infinite amount of volume,” Rothschild says, which will be an especially big problem when astronauts head to distant destinations like Mars. “Everything you have at launch means something else can’t come with you.”

One way to save room is to pack flat plastic sheets to be folded later. Waiting to manufacture the plastic until you’re already at your destination would be even better.

To this end, Rothschild and her team have genetically engineered strains of E. coli that can create plastic, which in turn can fold itself into 3D shapes when heated. They presented their plastic creations at the end of September at the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition in Boston.

“Biology has the advantage of being self-replicating and self-repairing,” says Rothschild. “You could in theory bring up a tiny amount of material and have it live off the land. Then you’ve solved the upmass problem.”

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