Three New Bacterial Strains Discovered on the International Space Station May Help Grow Plants on Mars
To withstand the rigors of space on deep space missions, food grown outside of Earth needs a little extra help from bacteria. Now, a recent discovery aboard the International Space Station (ISS) has researchers who can help create the “fuel” to help plants cope with such stressful situations.
Publish your findings on Frontiers in microbiology, researchers working with POT described the discovery and isolation of 4 strains of bacteria belonging to the Methylobacteriaceae family from different locations aboard the ISS on two consecutive flights.
While 1 strain was identified as Methylorubrum rhodesianum, the other 3 were not previously discovered and belong to a new species. Rod-shaped motile bacteria received the designations IF7SW-B2T, IIF1SW-B5, and IIF4SW-B5 with genetic analyzes showing that they are closely related to Methylobacterium indicum.
Methylobacterium species are involved in nitrogen fixation, phosphate solubilization, abiotic stress tolerance, plant growth promotion, and biocontrol activity against plant pathogens.
Potential of missions to Mars
Now, in honor of renowned Indian biodiversity scientist Dr. Ajmal Khan, the team has proposed calling the new species Methylobacterium ajmalii.
Commenting on the discovery, Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran (Venkat) and Dr. Nitin Kumar Singh of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, (JPL), says that the strains could possess “biotechnologically useful genetic determinants” for growing crops in space.
However, more experimental biology is needed to show that it is, in fact, a potential game changer for space farming.
“To grow plants in extreme locations where resources are minimal, isolating new microbes that help promote plant growth under stressful conditions is essential,” they said.
Along with JPL, other researchers collaborating on this discovery are based at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Cornell University and Hyderabad University in India.
With NASA one day seeking to bring humans to the surface of Mars – and potentially beyond – the US National Research Council’s Decadal Survey recommends that the space agency use the ISS as a “test bed for studying microorganisms,” according to Venkat and Singh.
“Since our group has experience in cultivating extreme niche microorganisms, NASA’s Space Biology Program has commissioned us to inspect the ISS for the presence and persistence of microorganisms,” they add.
“It goes without saying that the ISS is an extreme environment with clean maintenance. Crew safety is the # 1 priority and therefore understanding human / plant pathogens is important, but beneficial microbes like this novel. Methylobacterium ajmalii they are also necessary “.
Expanding the ISS laboratory
As part of an ongoing surveillance mission, 8 locations on the ISS are being monitored for bacterial growth and have been for the past 6 years. These sample areas include where equipment is gathered or where experiments are conducted, such as the plant growth chamber.
While hundreds of bacterial samples from the ISS have been analyzed to date, approximately 1,000 samples have been collected from various other locations on the space station, but they are awaiting a trip back to Earth where they can be examined.
According to Venkat and Singh, the ultimate goal is to avoid this lengthy process and potentially find new new strains using molecular biology kits developed and demonstrated for the ISS.
“Instead of bringing samples to Earth for analysis, we need an integrated microbial monitoring system that collects, processes and analyzes samples in space using molecular technologies,” Venkat and Singh said.
“This miniaturized ‘omics in space’ technology, a biosensor development, will help NASA and other space travel nations achieve safe and sustainable space exploration over long periods of time.”
Reference: “Methylobacterium ajmalii sp. nov., isolated from the international space station ”by Swati Bijlani, Nitin K. Singh, VV Ramprasad Eedara, Appa Rao Podile, Christopher E. Mason, Clay CC Wang and Kasthuri Venkateswaran, March 15, 2021, Frontiers in microbiology.
DOI: 10.3389 / fmicb.2021.639396