Kombucha on Mars and Moon could help in astronauts' survival

The experiments revealed that "these cultures hold great promise for supporting humans on the Moon and Mars."
Mrigakshi Dixit
The Expose-R2 facility on the International Space Station.
The Expose-R2 facility on the International Space Station.


The European Space Agency (ESA) has flown "kombucha cultures" outside the International Space Station (ISS) to assess how well they can withstand the space environment and to observe the cellular processes of the microbes.

The fermentative characteristics of Kombucha cultures are well-known. These cultures are often made up of different strains of bacteria and yeast that work together to ferment sweetened tea and produce the popular beverage kombucha. 

According to the ESA's official release, the experiments reveal that "these cultures hold great promise for supporting humans on the Moon and Mars." 

Kombucha culture could withstand harsh space conditions

The experiments were inspired by earlier studies, which have shown that multicellular biofilms found in kombucha could withstand extreme environmental conditions on Earth. 

ESA's Expose carried out experiments to study the survival of bacteria in both space and simulated Martian conditions. Apart from this, the Expose facility containers store as many as 46 species of bacteria, fungi, and arthropods, which are kept for over 18 months. These experiments basically assess the limits of the terrestrial life in space. For instance, whether organisms can live in space and how continuous exposure to solar radiation affects these species.

Likewise, Kombucha culture samples were placed inside one of the Expose facility's containers outside the orbital space station. 

Interestingly, the experiment demonstrated that despite exposure to cosmic radiation, a microbe known as cyanobacterium could repair its DNA and resume the division process. It even resisted the harmful effects of iron ions, which otherwise may have led to severe cell damage. 

“In many living beings, tissues regenerate like human skin or bacterial biofilms by consistently multiplying through a process of cell division. The way these cells stop dividing until they've fixed their DNA damage is still a mystery,” explained ESA. 

However, the team suspects that a specific gene, dubbed sulA gene, might be involved in maintaining this cell division process.

The sulA gene functions as a cellular “traffic signal,” which could halt cell division until DNA repairs are completed — similar to how a red traffic light stops cars on the road. 

This gene plays a vital role in a cell's safety mechanism, ensuring that any damage is rectified before further cell multiplication process commences.

Kombucha on Mars and Moon could help in astronauts' survival
Fluorescence microscopy pictures reveal cell damage under different conditions. A special stain highlights intact cell membranes in green for a free-floating sample in space.


Microbes are valuable assets for future mission

Microbes can be used as a valuable model to assess the impact of lethal space radiation on the cells. 

“By understanding how these microorganisms respond, researchers can gain insights to comprehend and enhance human health and well-being. This includes developing radiation-protection strategies for astronauts in space,” added ESA. 

The upcoming Artemis mission series may include the cultivation of microorganisms on the Moon for diverse research experiments. Microorganisms-based biotech may also serve as valuable resources to establish a sustained human presence on Earth's natural satellite and, eventually, on Mars in the distant future.

“Due to their ability to produce oxygen and function as bio-factories, this biotechnology could significantly enhance future space missions and human space exploration efforts. I hope to see our samples attached to the lunar Gateway in the future or perhaps utilized on the surface of the Moon and beyond. Until then, we will continue to explore the possibilities our bio-cultures offer,” said Nicol Caplin, ESA deep space exploration scientist

Biofilms could serve as a means to safeguard space missions against contamination. Preventing the transfer of harmful biological and chemical agents from Earth to other celestial bodies, and vice versa is of paramount importance.

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