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Bacteria found to thrive better in space than on Earth

Staff writer |
Some species of bacteria have made themselves right at home in space, with one species, Bacillus safensis, found to thrive more in the microgravity of the International Space Station than here on Earth.

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The study was a product of Project MECCURI, a citizen science project where members of the public and microbiologists collected environmental microbial samples and sent them to the ISS to see how they'd grow.

Published this week in PeerJ, the findings not only raise discussion about the impact of microbe communities in human constructed environments in space, but also the how life could possibly be transported between planets during space travel.

The remarkable resilience of bacteria in space has been demonstrated before, when microbes survived after being placed on the exterior of the space station.

Project MECCURI focused on how bacteria sampled would survive inside the space station itself.

"The warm, humid, oxygen-rich environment of the ISS is a far cry from the vacuum of space," said Dr David Coil, University of California, Davis, microbiologist and lead author on the study.

Interestingly, the vast majority of the 48 strains of bacteria sent were found to grow at a rate very close to that on Earth.

But Bacillus safensis appeared to grow 60% better in space. B. safensis is no stranger to space travel either, having already hitchhiked on the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity and Spirit in 2004.

Coil told The Conversation what was more important was the fact that most bacteria behaved similarly in space as they do on Earth. And how microbes behave in microgravity will be critically important for planning long-term piloted spaceflight.

Although B. safensis did indeed grow better in microgravity, it is still a mystery why it behaved differently than on Earth. Coil hopes that sequencing the genome of the bacteria may provide clues.

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