Kombucha could be vital to interplanetary travel – but not as a tasty treat for astronauts two years into their mission.
The European Space Agency (ESA) is experimenting with cultures found in the fermented tea in the hope they can one day produce oxygen for humans in space and on other planets.
And it’s a case of so far, so good.
Astronauts have been dangling samples of kombucha cultures outside the International Space Station to understand how they cope with cosmic radiation.
In surprising results they found not only does one one of the microorganisms, cyanobacterium, survive the exposure by repairing its DNA, it also appears resistant to the destructive iron ions that cause extensive cell damage.
In a statement, the ESA said: ‘In many living beings, tissues regenerate like human skin or bacterial biofilms by consistently multiplying through a process of cell division. The way these cells stop dividing until they’ve fixed their DNA damage is still a mystery, but researchers suspect a specific gene – the sulA gene – could play a part in it.
‘The gene acts like a traffic signal for cells. It stops cells from dividing until they’ve repaired their DNA, like a red light stops cars from moving.’
Having proved they can withstand the hardships of space, the hope is to ship kombucha cultures to the Moon for further testing.
‘The cultures show great potential in supporting long-term human presence on the Moon and on Mars,’ said Petra Rettberg, head of the German Aerospace Center’s astrobiology group.
ESA deep space exploration scientist Nicol Caplin added: ‘Due to their ability to produce oxygen and function as bio-factories, this biotechnology could significantly enhance future space missions and human space exploration efforts.
‘I hope to see our samples attached to the lunar Gateway in the future, or perhaps utilised on the surface of the Moon and beyond. Until then, we will continue to explore the possibilities our bio-cultures offer.’
Nasa’s lunar Gateway is part of its Artemis programme, the successor to Apollo. It will orbit the Moon as a cosmic service station for those travelling to the lunar surface – and a staging point for deep space exploration.
The kombucha breakthrough comes as the US space agency revealed an oven-sized device on its Mars rover Perseverance generated oxygen – enough to sustain a small dog for ten hours. The results represent a huge step forward in humankind’s ability to survive on the Red Planet.
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