Yesterday, I read a story on the BBC website about bacteria that usually live in an earth-bound habitat surviving in space for 553 days – what truly exceptional astronauts!
The bacteria were taken from the cliffs at Beer – a small fishing village on the south coast of the UK – and whilst still attached to small chunks of rock, were placed on the European Space Agency’s (Esa) Technology Exposure Facility – a collection of experimental boxes at the end of the International Space Station’s (ISS) Columbus laboratory.
After a year and a half in space the microbes were removed and analysed and amazingly, the researchers found that many were still alive. The surviving microbes are now in a lab at the Open University (OU) in Milton Keynes.
The fact that these ordinary microbes survived in extraordinary conditions is very exciting. They would have been exposed to extreme ultraviolet light, cosmic rays, dramatic shifts in temperature, and a very dry environment in the vacuum of space where all the water in the rocks they were attached to would have boiled away.
It is thought that a combination of the thick cell walls of the bacteria, and the fact that they form colonies of multiple cells that would have protected cells at the centre from UV radiation and against desiccation, many of the cells were able to survive.
So what are the implications for this research?
Researchers have known that bacteria can survive in orbit for several years, but this is the first evidence that cells of cyanobacteria or photosynthesising microbes could survive in space. In a time when we are striving to explore the planets and solar system around us to see if life could be supported in places other than Earth, it seems that we should be looking closer to home to discover some of the secrets of surviving out there.