Take off! Pacific Northwest National Lab’s study of microbes could open a path for future farmers on Mars

SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from its launch pad in Florida. (SpaceX via YouTube)

An experiment on its way to the International Space Station focuses on a topic that’s as common as land, but could hold the key to growing crops in space.

The NASA-funded experiment, known as Dynamics of Microbiomes in Space, or DynaMoS, is being conducted by researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. DynaMoS uses soil and bacteria that were collected at a Washington State University field site in Prosser, Washington.

“Soil microbes are the hidden players in the life support system on planet Earth,” explained PNNL Chief Scientist Janet Jansson, Principal Investigator of the DynaMoS experiment, during a pre-launch press briefing. Bacteria work to break down organic matter and make nutrients available to growing plants.

Space missions could extend the reach of microbes beyond our home planet.

“Soil microbes can help make conditions on the lunar surface and on Mars more favorable for plant growth,” Jansson said. “They can also be used to help grow crops on space stations and during long-term spaceflight.”

To discover how the space environment affects the work done by soil microbes, scientists packed 52 test tubes containing soil loaded with eight types of bacteria aboard a SpaceX Dragon robotic cargo capsule headed for the space station. Another 52 tubes are kept in a laboratory for comparison.

The shipment was originally scheduled to take off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in June. But that attempt was called off when engineers detected elevated hydrazine propellant readings while fueling the Dragon.

Today’s launch, by contrast, went off without a hitch. Minutes after SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket lifted off, the first-stage booster landed on a parked drone in the Atlantic Ocean, while the Dragon continued its robotic journey to orbit.

The schedule calls for the Dragon to rendezvous with the space station on Saturday, delivering about 5,800 pounds of supplies and experiments, including DynaMoS.

The PNNL researchers plan to monitor how well the bacteria in the soil samples break down a substance known as chitin, which is found in the exoskeletons of insects and the cell walls of fungi. Chitin is the second most abundant type of polysaccharide in the world, after cellulose, and serves as a common food source for microbes.

When microbes consume chitin, they produce nutrients for other organisms in the soil. Jansson said measuring how well microbes consume chitin should tell scientists how the carbon cycling process in space might be affected by factors including zero gravity, space radiation exposure and altered carbon dioxide levels. carbon.

“We wanted to have something that required an interactive community to break down,” Jansson told GeekWire. “Chitin is a complex polymer, so it is difficult for an organism to degrade it on its own.”

Members of the DynaMoS research team show off their experiment at the Kennedy Space Center: From left to right: Kim Hixson, Janet Jansson, Yuliya Farris, and Marcia Garcia.  (PNNL Photo/Andrea Starr)

Members of the DynaMoS research team show off their experiment at the Kennedy Space Center: From left to right: Kim Hixson, Janet Jansson, Yuliya Farris, and Marcia Garcia. (PNNL Photo/Andrea Starr)

Each set of test tubes will be sampled at four different times over the course of 12 weeks. And when the space-borne samples are brought back from orbit, they will be compared to laboratory samples that remained on Earth.

“We’ve done some preliminary experiments just to see who might be playing well with whom,” Jansson said. “Our hypothesis is that in the space environment, those interactions can be altered due to conditions in space. For example, in microgravity, it may be more difficult for these different species to find each other.”

The results of the experiment could guide scientists as they devise recipes to make soil suitable for growing crops on spacecraft, on the moon or on Mars. Who knows? A mix of bacteria from eastern Washington state could end up optimizing potato crops on the Red Planet.

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