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 like magnetism.

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

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 strengths of gravity: one simulating Earth gravity; one simulating Mars gravity; and one at 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 the team was “surprised” at the results, “given that microgravity is known to influence the behaviour of fluids”.

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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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