Space breakthrough: Scientists reveal rock-eating microbes could help humans on Mars

It follows a recent study into how well certain microorganisms perform in low-gravity environments such as Mars or on spacecraft. Their results “demonstrate the potential for space biomining and the principles of a reactor to advance human industry and mining beyond Earth”.

Here on Earth, scientists use certain microbes in a range of different industries because they are capable of extracting valuable elements from rocks.

Such elements include gold, copper, and others which are valued for their physical properties such as magnetism.

This means they can be used in the production of electronics, metal alloys, and other technologies.

In addition, the microbes are capable in some circumstances of decontaminating polluted soils.

For these reasons, scientists have realised the microbes could play a vital part in helping humans establish colonies off the Earth.

Called BioRock, the experiment ran for three weeks during the summer of last year.

READ: NASA mission to return Mars rocks to Earth given green light – ‘Pristine pieces of Mars’

The study reads: “As humans explore and potentially settle in space, microbe–mineral interactions have been recognised to be important, including in biomining.”

However, although such microbes have been shown to work well here on Earth, scientists were unsure how well they would perform on other planets or in spacecraft, where the strength of gravity may be vastly different.

On the surface of Mars, gravity is 62 percent lower than on Earth.

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To find out whether this would affect how well the microbes performed, scientists from the European Space Agency ran an experiment based on the International Space Station.

In the study, scientists measured how well three different microbial species were able to extract 14 different useful elements from basaltic rock.

The type of rock was chosen because it is commonly found on the moon and on Mars.

The scientists then put the microbes to work in a biomining reactor, and observed the results after altering the simulated gravity inside.

They used three different types of gravity – one which simulated Earth gravity; one which simulated Mars gravity, and one in microgravity.

They found that low-gravity conditions did indeed reduce the biomining effects of some of the microbes, but one – called S. desiccabilis – appeared to work well even in microgravity.

Charles Cockell, an expert at the Centre for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh, and co-lead author of the study, told Space.com the team was “surprised” at the results, “given that microgravity is known to influence the behaviour of fluids”.

The study report concluded: “In conclusion, our results demonstrate the biological mining of economically important elements in space, specifically REEs and in different extra-terrestrial gravity environments.

“The experiment thus shows the efficacy of microbe–mineral interactions for advancing the establishment of a self-sustaining permanent human presence beyond the Earth and the technical means to do that.”

This weekend, four more astronauts are due to be launched to the International Space Station aboard SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft.

It will be the first crew rotation mission on a commercial spacecraft, NASA said.

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