New strains of bacteria found on the space station may help astronauts grow plants on Mars

A recent study says that four strains of bacteria have been discovered at the International Space Station (ISS). Three of the bacterial strains are new and have been previously unknown to science. The ISS is an orbital laboratory situated in low-Earth orbit (LEO) that has seen numerous astronauts visit to maintain the station and perform scientific experiments in its microgravity environment. Over the last six years, astronauts on different crews collected samples from eight spots on the space station, to scan for the presence of microbes. According to a CNN report, the latest bacterial strains are from the Methylobacteriaceae family.

Amara mustard plants growing inside the Veggie facility on the space station for the Veg-03 study, which continues work exploring how to grow food in space. Image: NASA

All the four strains discovered belong to a family of bacteria found in soil and freshwater, but scientists were only familiar with Methylorubrum rhodesianum. Through their findings, researchers have discovered that the other three microbes are relatives of Methylobacterium indicum – a bacterium isolated from rice that can use basic one-carbon compounds like methanol or methane as their carbon source to grow. The bacteria are involved in nitrogen fixation, where molecular nitrogen (N2) in the air is converted into ammonia (NH4) and plant growth, and may keep away plant pathogens. Scientists think the bacteria will be helpful to the growth of plants in space – a helpful tool for future astronauts that live in space for long periods of time.

The crew aboard the space station are growing many batches of mixed greens (including mizuna, red romaine lettuce and tokyo bekana cabbage). There are multiple veggie facilities simultaneously running at any given time. Image: NASA

Stating that the new strains might have 'biotechnologically-useful genetic determinants,' scientists said that isolation of novel microbes that assist in plant growth during adverse conditions is essential. NASA researchers Kasthuri Venkateswaran and Nitin Kumar Singh worked on this research, according to the statement. Both are stationed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, where Kasthuri is a senior research scientist and Nitin is planetary protection engineer.

In honour of the Indian scientist Ajmal Khan, the researchers have voted to name the new strains of bacteria Methylobacterium ajmalii, according to a Voice of America report. Along with Venkateswaran and Singh, researchers from University of Southern California, Cornell University and University of Hyderabad were also involved with the study.

It was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Frontiers in Microbiology on 15 March.

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