Researchers have discovered new species of bacteria on the International Space Station (ISS), with the potential to aid efforts to grow food in space. The study, published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Microbiology, was conducted by scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in partnership with the University of Southern California, Cornell University and the University of Hyderabad (India).
In this case, three new strains belonging to the Methylobacterium family were identified and isolated, designated as IF7SW-B2T, IIF1SW-B5 and IIF4SW-B5. These species have biotechnologically useful genetic determinants for their function, such as nitrogen fixation capacity, phosphate solubilization, tolerance to abiotic stress, promotion of plant growth and biocontrol against diseases and pests.
The expectation is that they can provide conditions for the emergence of crops in extreme environments, including Mars. However, it will be necessary to carry out further experiments to prove its potential for space agriculture. To that end, the United States National Research Council recommended that the agency use the ISS as a test bed for microorganism research.
“To grow plants in extreme places where resources are minimal, it is essential to isolate new microbes that help to promote growth in stressful conditions. Bearing in mind that our group has this experience, we were tasked by NASA’s Space Biology Program to research the presence and persistence of microorganisms on the ISS ”, commented Kasthuri Venkateswaran (Venkat) and Nitin Kumar Singh, from JPL, in a note released by the website EurekAlert !.
This effort has already collected and analyzed hundreds of bacterial samples on board the spacecraft, but they are still waiting to be returned to Earth to be thoroughly examined. For Venkat and Singh, this is a long process that needs to be overcome, so it would be essential to create molecular biology equipment developed specifically for the ISS to achieve safe and sustainable space exploration.
“Instead of bringing samples back to Earth for analysis, we need an integrated microbial monitoring system that collects, processes and analyzes specimens in space, using molecular technologies,” they commented.
They stressed that keeping the environment clean and the safety of the crew is a priority of any work in the space laboratory, and highlights the importance of understanding possible human and plant pathogens in the research. In this sense, in the last 6 years, 8 sites on the ISS are constantly monitored, especially in the areas where the experiments are conducted.