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Earthly bacteria survives for years in space, study proves

Published Aug 26th, 2020 10:14PM EDT
space bacteria
Image: NASA

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  • An experiment has proven that bacteria can survive in the harsh conditions of space for years on end.
  • A Japanese mission placed bacteria pellets in panels outside of the International Space Station, and the bacteria managed to survive for up to three years before being retrieved.
  • Ensuring that such bacteria don’t contaminate other worlds is a top priority of NASA

Humans are living in space right this second, but that’s only because our technology has made such a feat possible. With decades of technological advancements on our side, you’d think humans would be the most well-suited of all the living creatures on Earth when it comes to enduring life in space. Well, you’d be wrong.

As a new study published in Frontiers in Microbiology explains, a very special, very resilient type of bacteria can survive in space all on its own, and for extended periods of time. The Deinococcus bacteria were purposefully exposed to the intense radiation and cold of space for a whopping three years and lived to tell the tale.

The study is the culmination of a Japanese mission that installed samples of the bacteria in “exposure panels” on the outside of the International Space Station. Out there, radiation levels are high, and temperatures are extreme. The only reason humans can venture out of the ISS is thanks to protective gear, but the bacteria had no such luxury.

The research was based on the idea of “panspermia,” which is a theory that suggests that interplanetary travel could seed life to other worlds, perhaps even without realizing it. The team wanted to determine whether this bacteria — which is considered one of the most hearty on the planet — could survive such a trip.

“To test our hypothesis, we placed dried cell pellets of the radioresistant bacteria Deinococcus spp. in aluminum plate wells in exposure panels attached to the outside of the International Space Station (ISS),” the researchers write. “We exposed microbial cell pellets with different thickness to space environments. The results indicated the importance of the aggregated form of cells for surviving in harsh space environment.”

The results? The bacteria did quite well, surviving for up to three years during the experiment and remained alive. The bacteria was healthy enough that it repaired damage to its DNA after it was retrieved. Based on the data, the researchers believe that bacteria arranged in “cell pellets” could survive in space for perhaps as long as eight years at a time.

NASA and other space agencies take great care to ensure that no Earthly life forms tag along for the ride when they send spacecraft to other worlds. NASA even has a Planetary Protection Officer who oversees the processes in place to ensure no bacteria or viruses are stowing away on hardware like the Perseverance rover. It appears as though that’s a very wise decision, as at least some Earthly bacteria can definitely handle the dangers of space all on their own.