Multicellular biofilms found in kombucha, have shown promise in surviving harsh environments on Earth, prompting scientists to investigate their potential to endure space's extreme conditions. The microorganisms are even being considered as bio-factories for self-sustaining life support systems for space settlements.
Kombucha in space
ESA's Expose facility held experiments on the International Space Station to investigate if and how bacteria survive in space and in simulated martian conditions.
Samples flew on the outside of the Space Station. The results show that a microorganism, cyanobacterium, was able to repair its DNA and resume cell division even after being exposed to cosmic radiation, even resisting the destructive iron ions that cause extensive cell damage.
In many living beings, tissues regenerate like human skin or bacterial biofilms by consistently multiplying through a process of cell division. The way these cells stop dividing until they've fixed their DNA damage is still a mystery, but researchers suspect a specific gene - the sulA gene - could play a part in it. The sulA gene acts like a traffic signal for cells. It stops cells from dividing until they've repaired their DNA, like a red light stops cars from moving. It's a crucial part of a cell's safety system, ensuring that any damages are fixed before the cells continue to multiply.
Another experiment revealed that cell clusters provided a microhabitat for smaller species, showing that some cells can 'hitchhike' through space within larger groups of cells that protect the hitchhikers.
Planetary protection is a set of protocols to prevent harmful biological and chemical contamination from Earth reaching other planets, moons, or celestial bodies, and vice-versa. Experiments like these can help understand how cell clusters and biofilms protect against the extremes of space, preventing contamination and preventing the contamination of space missions. They could also be used to shield organisms on longer journeys through space.
Microbes can also be a valuable 'radiation model'. By understanding how these microorganisms respond, researchers can gain insights to comprehend and enhance human health and well-being. This includes developing radiation-protection strategies for astronauts in space.
To Moon and Mars
Future Artemis missions to the lunar Gateway could involve cultivating microorganisms on the Moon.
"The cultures show great potential in supporting long-term human presence on the Moon and on Mars," says Petra Rettberg, Head of the German Aerospace Center's (DLR) astrobiology group.
"Due to their ability to produce oxygen and function as bio-factories, this biotechnology could significantly enhance future space missions and human space exploration efforts," adds ESA deep space exploration scientist Nicol Caplin.
"I hope to see our samples attached to the lunar Gateway in the future or perhaps utilised on the surface of the Moon and beyond. Until then, we will continue to explore the possibilities our bio-cultures offer."
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