Three new life forms have been found in different locations on-board the International Space Station.
A team of US and Indian scientists discovered the new species through advanced genetic testing. Four strains of bacteria were found in the orbiting lab, with three unknown to science.
The rod-shaped bacteria were found between 2015 and 2016, in different places on the space station: one being on the surface of the dining room table, one being on an overhead panel in the research station, and another in the Cupola observatory dome. The fourth strain was captured in an air filter belonging to a cabin that was returned to Earth ten years ago.
The bacteria species are involved in essential agricultural processes such as abiotic stress tolerance, biocontrol activity against pathogens, nitrogen fixation, phosphate solubilisation, and plant growth promotion.
The discovery of these life forms could offer researchers a way to help future astronauts grow food in deep space during their missions, which was a theory first published by the science journal Frontiers in Microbiology. As the bacteria is proven to survive the conditions of the ISS, this potentially means it could contribute to humans eventually growing their own food in space, which would be a helpful addition to future missions to the planet Mars.
NASA’s Dr Kasthuri Venkateswaran and Dr Nitin Kumar Singh said that the strains might possess “biotechnologically useful generic determinants” for growing crops in space.
Researchers from the University of Southern California identified the bacteria strain as belonging to the “good” family of Methylobacteriaceae, found in soil and freshwater here on Earth. They also cautioned that further research would be needed to figure out if space-farming in this manner could definitely be established.
They said: “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. 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.”
The geneticist who led the research, Dr Swati Bijlani, suggested naming the new species of bacteria “Methylobacterium Ajmalii,” after Ajmal Khan, an Indian biodiversity scientist.
If scientists are able to establish the new techniques used for “space farming” to grow food in space, it will provide a useful aid to future NASA missions.