Biomining on Mars and Moon: Earth Bacteria Are Here To Help

This is the first time an economically important element has been extracted from a material found on the Moon and Mars.
Deniz Yildiran

Scientists from the UK have just managed to release rare earth elements, letting bacteria digest rocks in space, just as they did it on Earth. 

The experiment, dubbed "BioRock experiment" was conducted on the International Space Station (ISS), resulting in a way that sustainability, crucial for building new civilizations outside the Earth, might not have to entirely rely on elements directly transported from our planet.  

Research has been published in the journal Nature Communications.


"Wherever you are in space, whether you're building a settlement on asteroids, the Moon or Mars - you're going to need elements to build your civilization," said Prof Charles Cockell from the UK Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.

"What our BioRock experiment has shown is that bio-mining is just one way in which we might go about extracting useful elements from rocks to support a long-term human presence beyond the Earth," he continued.

The research sent their biomining-reactors to ISS, containing a basaltic rock with REE compositions and the group of three rock smashing bacteria. Sphingomonas desiccabilis,Bacillus subtilis and Cupriavidus metallidurans were put in three different gravity conditions through being placed in a centrifuge: microgravity, simulated Mars and Earth gravity. 

Sphingomonas desiccabilis was the only one enhancing the extraction game, while Cupriavidus metallidurans performed in the same way as it did on Earth, and Bacillus subtilis have even extracted less of the REEs. 

"This is the first time in space that anyone has deliberately removed an economically interesting element from an extraterrestrial analog material like basalt," Prof Cockell told BBC News. "It's really the first mining experiment in space, if you like. We didn't actually create economically useful amounts of rare-Earth elements, but we demonstrated the principle."

BioRock experiment was first proposed to the European Space Agency in 2009, and selected as a candidate for the agency's International Life Science Research Announcement. Ten years later, on July 30, 2019, the experiment had been run until August 20, 2019.

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