The International Space Station

New strains of bacteria found on the International Space Station

Three unknown species have been discovered growing on the ISS, but don't break out the anti-bac wipes just yet.

Don’t panic, but three strains of bacteria, previously unknown to science, have been found growing on the International Space Station (ISS). 

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For the last six years, scientists working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been monitoring a number of locations on the ISS for bacterial growth, including dining tables and the station’s plant growth chamber. 

They have identified four strains in the latest discovery, all on equipment that has since returned to Earth and all belonging to a family of bacteria usually found in soil and freshwater. One is a species known as Methylorubrum rhodesianum. The other three were from an entirely new species, named Methylobacterium ajmalii

If the finding sounds like the basis of a science-fiction horror film, you can take your rubber gloves off and put the anti-bacterial spray back under the sink. The bacteria are not only safe for humans, researchers say they could be beneficial for growing crops in the harsh environment of space. 

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Astronauts on board the ISS have been growing plants and food in small quantities for years. These bacteria, originally isolated in 2015 and 2016, is thought to have derived from those experiments. It’s typically associated with nitrogen plant growth and plant pathogen control, and could prove useful in future missions to the Moon or Mars. 

“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,” two of the team, Kasthuri Venkateswaran and Nitin Kumar Singh from NASA’s JPL, said in a statement.

All four strains have undergone genetic analysis in an attempt to find genes that will promote plant growth in space. And a further 1,000 samples taken from the ISS are also waiting for a return trip to Earth for new analysis.

It’s not the first time that hardy, space-faring bacteria have been found on the ISS. In 2020, Japanese researchers found that pellets of dried bacteria stuck to the exterior of the station were able to survive in space for more than three years. 

Nicknamed Conan the Bacterium for its ability to endure extreme conditions, it’s thought the bacteria would withstand interplanetary travel. It raises the possibility that humans will not be the first species from Earth to colonise Mars or other planets.

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