Unknown Bacteria Discovered On The International Space Station

A recent genetic analysis reveals the discovery of three bacterial strains that were previously unknown on the International Space Station. These strains are expected to help scientists come up with better ways to produce food on Mars. The journal Frontiers in Microbiology published the research, detailing the strains of bacteria collected by astronauts aboard the space station. Astronauts collected these strains in 2011, 2015, and 2016 as part of an ongoing surveillance program. They had to check for bacterial growth in eight different areas in the space station. Astronauts have already sent hundreds of samples to be analyzed, and thousands more will be sent to the Earth on return missions.

Unknown bacteria

The newly found strain of bacteria belongs to the Methylobacteriaceae bacterial family. It is common in soil and freshwater. They fix nitrogen and prevent pathogens, thereby assisting plant growth. But, how did they grow on the space station?

Astronauts conduct numerous plant-based experiments on the space station. Therefore, the new strain was most probably derived from them. The Advanced Plant Habitat is an example of such experiments. It is an automated growth chamber that grows plants in space. Scientists then study them on Earth. This new strain can surely withstand the conditions at the space station. Also, researchers predict that it may contain biotechnologically useful genetic determinants. This is why it might be able to contribute to space farming.

Unknown bacteria
Genome-based phylogenetic tree showing the phylogenetic relationship of Methylobacterium ajmalii sp. nov. with members of the family Methylobacteriaceae. Credit: Bijlani et al.

The New Strain Might Boost Long-Term Food Growth On Missions And Food Growth On Other Planets

Kasthuri Venkateswaran and Nitin K. Singh, the authors of the study, expressed their thoughts in a press release. They say that it’s essential to isolate novel viruses that stimulate plant growth under stressful conditions, in order to facilitate plant growth in extreme environments with limited resources. In order to speed up the understanding of bacterial behavior in space, Singh and Venkateswaran suggested the development of customized equipment for astronauts. The astronauts should be able to utilize them to study bacteria on the space station. They state that having an “integrated microbial monitoring system that collects, processes, and analyzes samples in space using molecular technologies” is necessary. This will save the hassle of bringing them back to Earth to be studied.

Unknown bacteria
NASA astronaut and Expedition 64 Flight Engineer Kate Rubins checks out radish plants growing for the Plant Habitat-02 experiment. Credit: NASA

NASA plans to send humans to Mars by 2030s. Therefore, developing sustainable ways of growing nutritious food is critical. The main reason for this is that packing the food required by astronauts is impractical, as the roundtrip, excluding the time spent on Mars, will take around 14 months. An abundant supply of nutritious food is essential to maintain the health of astronauts. The biggest issues with prepackaged food are their weight and the breaking down of nutrients over time. This is why NASA is trying to understand how to grow nutritious food in microgravity through various projects.

Unknown bacteria
International Space Station Credit: NASA

No matter where they are, food has a psychological effect on every human. These psychological benefits are what NASA is trying to achieve, as they will definitely bring positive effects to astronauts conducting long-term missions away from Earth.

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