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Where did these new bacteria come from, and why are they on the ISS?

Published Mar 16th, 2021 11:28PM EDT
space station bacteria
Image: NASA

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Humans are filthy. No, I don’t mean we bring garbage with us wherever we go, though we tend to do that as well, we’re really just filthy creatures. We’re covered in bacteria inside and out, but that’s not a bad thing. The vast majority of bacteria on and inside of our bodies are beneficial and actually keep us alive and healthy. In fact, we bring so many different kinds of bacteria with us wherever we go that scientists are still finding new ones they’ve never seen before.

That appears to be what is happening on the International Space Station, where four strains of bacteria were just found on the orbiting laboratory that have never been found there before. One of them is already known to science but three of them are members of a completely new species, which is pretty exciting stuff. It’s even more exciting that these bacteria appear to be really good at fighting plant pathogens, and that could come in handy if we ever want to grow plants on another planet, like Mars.

The bacteria discovery, which was detailed in a new paper published in Frontiers in Microbiology, is important for a number of reasons. Finding a new species of bacteria in space might sound sketchy, but scientists don’t have any reason to suspect that these bacteria are harmful to humans in any way. While they may be a new species, they appear to be related to a family of bacteria that “are involved in nitrogen fixation, phosphate solubilization, abiotic stress tolerance, plant growth promotion, and biocontrol activity against plant pathogens,” according to the researchers.

Astronauts aboard the space station have experimented with plants for years. Understanding how plants grow outside of Earth is extremely important if we hope to grow crops during long-haul space missions or on other planets or even on Earth’s moon. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that bacteria that are friendly to plants were found on the International Space Station, but it’s still an exciting discovery for researchers.

“To grow plants in extreme places where resources are minimal, isolation of novel microbes that help to promote plant growth under stressful conditions is essential,” the researchers explain. “Needless to say, the ISS is a cleanly-maintained extreme environment. Crew safety is the number 1 priority and hence understanding human/plant pathogens are important, but beneficial microbes like this novel Methylobacterium ajmalii are also needed.”

No space agency on the planet currently has any concrete plans to send humans to Mars. It will almost certainly happen, but at the moment we lack the technology to do it safely and efficiently. Knowing what kind of bacteria we should or shouldn’t bring with us will be one of a million important pieces of information that will need to be applied when the time is right.

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