Bacteria could help ‘space farmers’ grow plants on Mars

A recent discovery aboard the International Space Station (ISS) has demonstrated how researchers can use bacteria to help grow plants on Mars.

Publishing their findings in Frontiers in Microbiology, researchers working with NASA described how bacteria could help plants on Mars withstand the harsh environment. They also discuss the isolation of four strains of bacteria belonging to the family Methylobacteriaceae from different locations aboard the ISS across two consecutive flights. While one strain was identified as Methylorubrum rhodesianum, the other three were previously undiscovered and belong to a novel species. The rod-shaped, motile bacteria were given the designations IF7SW-B2T, IIF1SW-B5, and IIF4SW-B5 with genetic analysis showing them to be closely related to Methylobacterium indicum.

Commenting on the discovery, Dr Kasthuri Venkateswaran (Venkat) and Dr Nitin Kumar Singh of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, (JPL), says that the strains might possess “biotechnologically useful genetic determinants” for the growing of crops in space. Further experimental biology is needed to prove that it is a potential game-changer for space farming. The team suggest that in order 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.

With NASA looking to take humans to the surface of Mars, the US National Research Council Decadal Survey recommends that the space agency use the ISS as a test-bed for surveying microorganisms.

Singh added: “Since our group possess expertise in cultivating microorganisms from extreme niches, we have been tasked by the NASA Space Biology Program to survey the ISS for the presence and persistence of the microorganisms.

“Needless to say, the ISS is a cleanly-maintained extreme environment. Crew safety is the number one priority and hence understanding human/plant pathogens are important, but beneficial microbes like this novel Methylobacterium ajmalii are also needed.”

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