Unknown Microbes Discovered Aboard the International Space Station

Writing in a study published in the journal Frontiers in Microbiology, an international team of researchers has announced the discovery of four strains of bacteria discovered on the International Space Station (ISS), three of which have been hitherto completely unknown to science.

According to the study, all four of the newly discovered strains belong to the same family of bacteria (found mostly in soil and freshwater) that promote the growth of plants, block the spread of pathogens, and play a role in nitrogen fixation.

While the discovery of such bacteria aboard the ISS might seem odd at first blush, it could be explained quite easily by the fact that astronauts living on the ISS have been growing small amounts of food for many years now.

The International Space Station harbours a variety of bacterial strains conducive to plant growth in space. Image: NASA Johnson via flickr.com, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“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,” said co-authors Kasthuri Venkateswaran and Nitin Kumar Singh in a press statement.

The research team also conducted a genetic analysis of the four bacterial strains in hopes of identifying specific genes that could eventually be used for the purposes of enhancing plant growth under microgravity conditions.

“The whole genome sequence assembly of these three ISS strains reported here will enable the comparative genomic characterization of ISS isolates with Earth counterparts in future studies,” wrote the authors in their study.

In the long-term, similar discoveries might enable scientists to engineer hardy, self-sustainable plant crops able to withstand the harsh conditions prevalent on the ISS and provide a good portion of the food necessary for long-duration space missions of the future.

The researchers claim that their study is just the beginning of biological research in relation to the ISS, with around 1,000 different samples pending a trip back to Earth.

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