New Results Show This Common Bacteria Grows 60% Better in Space Than on Earth

March 23, 2016 | Johannes Van Zijl

The International Space Station
Photo credit: NASA

This bacteria flourished in space, and it’s not clear why.

The results of a long term experiment conducted by researchers from project MERCURRI (Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Research on ISS) that were published yesterday, March 22, in Peerj, found that one of the strains of bacteria that was sent to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2014, Bacillus safensis JPL-MERTA-8-2, grew 60 percent better in space than it would here on Earth.

This isn’t the first time B. safensis has made headlines. The bacteria was first discovered in 2004 and was found on one of the Mars Exploration Rovers at the NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — hence the name, B. safensis JPL-MERTA-8-2.

B. safensis growing on agar

photo credit: Nasa/JPL

The microbiologist, David Coil, who led the research team on project MERCURRI, told Motherboard in conversation, “Part of our hope here was to inspire people to think more about the non-pathogenic microbes that surround us, but also about research on the space station.”

Back in April 2014, the MERCURRI team launched 48 non-pathogenic bacterial candidates for experiments on the ISS. The team also kept an identical set of microbes in labs on earth, which were placed under conditions to track their growth so that they could compare them to the bacteria on board the ISS.

The experiment was focused on how bacteria survive and adapt to conditions in space, as well as gaining insight and understanding of how bacteria living on Earth might be an actual problem during future space missions because of their ability to survive and populate in space.

SEE ALSO: Fungus Growth on the ISS Gives Hope for Life on Mars

David Coil told Motherboard, “We sent up a collection of bugs and most of them pretty much did the same things that they do on Earth.”

Except for B. safensis. The bacteria grew an astonishing 60 percent better in space compared to its counterpart in lab on Earth, for reasons which are still not clear.

David Coil went on to say, "Bugs are pretty small, so gravity is not a major determining factor on their day-to-day metabolism and physiology.”

"My guess is that something like that is going on here, where for this bug [B. safensis], there’s something about less gravity that is favourable to its growth as a community," he told Motherboard. "But to really get at it, you’d want to send that bug back up there under some different conditions and maybe have [the ISS crew] do some more in-depth experiments."

The experiments conducted on the ISS are really important because, if we want to colonize the moon or Mars someday, understanding how bacteria survive in space will be crucial.

In the meantime, we will have to wait and see what future experiments with B. safensis have in store for us!

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