The European Space Agency is testing cultures of kombucha, known for its fermentative properties and potential health benefits, to evaluate its resilience in space. These cultures hold great promise for supporting humans on the Moon and Mars.
The multicellular biofilms found in kombucha have shown promise in surviving harsh environments on Earth, prompting scientists to explore their ability to withstand harsh conditions in space. Rather, microorganisms are being considered as vital factories for self-sustaining life support systems in space settlements.
Kombucha in space
ESA’s Expose facility has conducted experiments on the International Space Station to find out if and how bacteria survive in space and in conditions simulating Mars.
The samples flew outside the space station. The results showed that the microorganisms, cyanobacteria, were able to repair their DNA and resume cell division even after being exposed to cosmic radiation, and even resist damaging iron ions that cause widespread cell damage.
In many organisms, tissues such as human skin or bacterial biofilms regenerate through continuous reproduction through the process of cell division. How these cells stop dividing in order to repair their DNA damage remains a mystery, but researchers suspect that a specific gene – the sulA gene – could play a role. The sulA gene acts as a traffic signal for cells. It prevents cells from dividing until they repair their DNA, like a red light that stops cars from moving. It is an important part of the cell’s integrity system, ensuring that any damage is repaired before cells can continue to multiply.
Another experiment revealed that clusters of cells provide microhabitat for smaller species, showing that some cells can “move” through space within larger clusters of cells that protect the movers.
Planetary protection is a set of protocols to prevent harmful biological and chemical contamination from Earth and reaching planets, moons or other celestial bodies, and vice versa. Experiments like this could help understand how cell populations and biofilms protect against extreme conditions in space, prevent contamination and prevent contamination of space missions. They can also be used to protect living organisms on long journeys through space.
Microbes can also be a valuable “radiation model.” By understanding how these microorganisms respond, researchers can gain insights into understanding and enhancing human health and well-being. This includes developing radiation protection strategies for astronauts in space.
To the moon and Mars
Future Artemis missions to the Lunar Gateway could include cultivating microorganisms on the Moon.
“Cultures show great potential in supporting long-term human presence on the Moon and Mars,” says Petra Rettberg, head of the Astrobiology Group at the German Aerospace Center (DLR).
“Given their ability to produce oxygen and act as biofactories, this biotechnology could greatly enhance future space missions and human space exploration efforts,” adds ESA deep space exploration scientist Nicole Caplin.
“I hope to see our samples attached to the Lunar Gateway in the future or perhaps used on and beyond the lunar surface. Until then, we will continue to explore the possibilities offered by our biocultures.”