The collection of species of bacteria and fungi that live among us is growing, and this is no exception in low-gravity environments, such as the International Space Station (ISS). Researchers from the United States and India working with NASA have now discovered four strains of bacteria(Unknown Microbes) that live in different places on the ISS, three of which were, until now, completely unknown to science.
Three of the four strains were isolated in 2015 and 2016: one was found in an upper panel of ISS research stations, the second was found in the Dome, the third was found on the surface of the dining room table, and the fourth was found in an old HEPA filter returned to Earth in 2011.
All the unknown microbes four strains belong to a family of bacteria found in soil and freshwater; They are involved in nitrogen fixation, plant growth, and can help stop plant pathogens. Basically good bacteria to have if you are growing things.
You might be wondering what those soil bacteria were doing in Earth orbit. The answer is that astronauts living on the space station have been growing small amounts of food for years, so it is not surprising that we have found plant-related microbes on board.
One of the strains – the HEPA filter finding – was identified as a known species called Methylorubrum rhodesianum . The other three were sequenced and all were found to belong to the same previously unidentified species, and the strains were named IF7SW-B2T, IIF1SW-B5 and IIF4SW-B5.
The team, led by Swati Bijlani, a geneticist at the University of Southern California, has proposed naming the new species Methylobacterium ajmalii after Ajmal Khan, a renowned Indian biodiversity scientist. This new finding is also closely related to an already known species called M. indicum .
“To grow plants in extreme locations where resources are minimal, isolating new microbes that help promote plant growth under stressful conditions is essential,” two team members, Kasthuri Venkateswaran and Nitin Kumar , explained in a press release. Singh from NASA’s JPL.
Taking into account that we already know that these microbes can survive the harsh conditions of the ISS, the team subjected the four strains to genetic analysis to look for genes that could be used to help promote plant growth.
“The whole genome sequence set of the three ISS strains reported here will allow comparative genomic characterization of these with their Earth counterparts in future studies,” the team writes in their study.
“This will further aid in the identification of genetic determinants that could potentially be responsible for promoting plant growth under microgravity conditions and contributing to the development of self-sustaining plant crops for long-term space missions in the future.”
The researchers found that one of the ISS strains, IF7SW-B2T, had promising genes involved in plant growth, including a gene for an essential enzyme for cytokinin, which promotes cell division in roots and shoots.
There is much more research to be done here: Scientists acknowledge that they have barely scratched the surface of microbial diversity on the space station. About 1,000 samples have already been collected, but they are still waiting for a trip back to Earth.
Imagine the exciting space unknown microbes that we have yet to discover!
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The research has been published in Frontiers in Microbiology .