New strains of bacteria discovered in space station, fuelling hopes of growing food en route to Mars

The new strains were discovered from the International Space Station. Credit: AP

Three new strains of bacteria have been discovered on board the International Space Station, fuelling hopes of growing food among the stars.

The strains – identified in different locations across two consecutive flights – are from a family of bacteria involved in plant growth promotion and could be key for prospective trips to Mars.

The findings, published in journal Frontiers in Microbiology, could be a “potential game-changer for space farming”.

Dr Kasthuri Venkateswaran and Dr Nitin Kumar Singh, two of the report’s authors, said: "To grow plants in extreme places where resources are minimal, isolation of novel microbes that help to promote plant growth under stressful conditions is essential.”

With NASA one day looking to take humans to the surface of Mars, the US National Research Council Decadal Survey recommends the space agency use the ISS as a "test-bed for surveying microorganisms", according to Venkat and Singh.

“Since our group possess expertise in cultivating microorganisms from extreme niches, we have been tasked by the NASA Space Biology Program to survey the ISS for the presence and persistence of the microorganisms," they add.

As part of an ongoing surveillance mission, eight locations on the ISS are being monitored for bacterial growth.

These sample areas include places where the crew assemble or where experiments are conducted – such as the plant growth chamber.

While hundreds of bacterial samples from the ISS have been analysed so far, around 1,000 samples have been collected on the space station, awaiting a trip back to Earth for examination.

According to Venkat and Singh, the eventual goal is to bypass this lengthy process and potentially find new strains using molecular biology equipment developed for the ISS.