Three strains of bacteria, previously unknown to scientists, have been found growing on the International Space Station (ISS).
For the last six years, scientists working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been studying multiple parts of the ISS for bacterial growth, including dining tables and the plant growth chamber.
In the latest discovery, they found four strains of bacteria, all on equipment that has since returned to Earth. All four strains belong to a family of bacteria that is usually found in soil and freshwater. One is a species known as Methylorubrum rhodesianum. The other three were from an entirely new species, named Methylobacterium ajmalii.
The discovery sounds terrifying, but luckily the bacteria are not harmful to humans. Researchers even think the bacteria could actually be beneficial for growing crops in the harsh environment of space.
Astronauts living on the ISS have been growing plants and food in small quantities for years. Scientists believe these new bacteria originated from those experiments.
“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,” Kasthuri Venkateswaran and Nitin Kumar Singh from NASA’s JPL said in a statement.
All four strains were taken for genetic analysis in an attempt to find genes that will promote plant growth in space. An additional 1,000 samples taken from the ISS are also waiting to go to Earth for analysis.
In 2020, Japanese researchers found that pellets of dried bacteria stuck to the exterior of the ISS were able to survive in space for more than three years.
Named Conan the Bacterium for its ability to endure extreme conditions, scientists believe the bacteria could survive interplanetary travel. This could mean that humans will not be the first species from Earth to colonize Mars or other planets.