Kombucha: Ally for Moon and Mars – Innovita Research

ESA is testing kombucha cultures, famous for their fermentative properties and potential health benefits, to assess their resilience in space. These cultures hold great promise for supporting humans on the Moon and Mars.

Expose-R2 in space.

Expose-R2 in space. Image credit: Roscosmos

Multicellular biofilms found in kombucha have shown promise in surviving harsh environments on Earth, prompting scientists to investigate their potential to endure space’s extreme conditions. The microorganisms are considered bio-factories for self-sustaining life support systems for space settlements.

Kombucha in space

ESA's Expose facility conducted experiments on the International Space Station to investigate whether and how bacteria survive in space and simulated Martian conditions.

Samples flew on the outside of the Space Station. The results show that a microorganism, cyanobacterium, could repair its DNA and resume cell division even after exposure to cosmic radiation, even resisting the destructive iron ions that cause extensive cell damage. 

In many living beings, tissues like human skin or bacterial biofilms regenerate by consistently multiplying through cell division. The way these cells stop dividing until they've fixed their DNA damage is still a mystery, but researchers suspect a specific gene – the sulA gene – could play a part in it.

The sulA gene acts like a traffic signal for cells. It stops cells from dividing until they've repaired their DNA, like a red light stops cars from moving. It's a crucial part of a cell's safety system, ensuring that any damages are fixed before the cells continue to multiply.

Another experiment revealed that cell clusters provided a microhabitat for smaller species, showing that some cells can ‘hitchhike’ through space within larger groups of cells that protect the hitchhikers.

Planetary protection is a set of protocols to prevent harmful biological and chemical contamination from Earth reaching other planets, moons, or celestial bodies. Experiments like these can help understand how cell clusters and biofilms protect against the extremes of space, preventing contamination and preventing the contamination of space missions. They could also be used to shield organisms on longer journeys through space.

Fluorescence microscopy pictures reveal cell damage under different conditions.

Fluorescence microscopy pictures reveal cell damage under different conditions. Image credit: ESA

Microbes can also be a valuable ‘radiation model.’ Researchers can gain insights to comprehend and enhance human health and well-being by understanding how these microorganisms respond. This includes developing radiation-protection strategies for astronauts in space.

To Moon and Mars

Future Artemis missions to the lunar Gateway could involve cultivating microorganisms on the Moon.

Moon surface scenario.

Moon surface scenario. Image credit: ESA-ATG

“The cultures show great potential in supporting long-term human presence on the Moon and on Mars,” says Petra Rettberg, Head of the German Aerospace Center’s (DLR) astrobiology group.

“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,” adds ESA deep space exploration scientist Nicol Caplin.

“I hope to see our samples attached to the lunar Gateway in the future or perhaps utilised on the surface of the Moon and beyond. Until then, we will continue to explore the possibilities our bio-cultures offer.”

Source: European Space Agency