Testing the feasibility of microbe-based life support

Nitrogen-converting microbes are able to withstand space conditions, which may make them useful for astronaut life support systems

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For long-term space exploration to succeed, self-sustaining life support systems must be developed. Bioreactors using microbial cultures that can convert nitrogen into useful forms have been investigated for this purpose; however, these cultures need to possess resilience to space radiation and microgravity.

Siegfried Vlaeminck and an international team tested the viability of a range of nitrogen-processing microbes after a 44-day flight to low Earth orbit (LEO) aboard the Russian FOTON-M4 research spacecraft.  

After the microbes returned to Earth, the researchers were surprised to find that their nitrogen conversion rates were generally higher than the control group of microbes kept at similar temperatures on Earth. A third group of microbes, kept on Earth at 4°C, were the highest performing nitrogen converters.

This research demonstrates the potential of nitrogen-converting microbes for life-support applications and suggests refrigeration as a strategy to maintain their viability.


Read the full paper on Scientific Reports. Cover photo: Dr Hyeon-Hye Kim examining plants in the Kennedy Space Center Space Sciences Lab, which is investigating life support system technology. Image courtesy of NASA.

Kristopher James Kent

Freelance journalist, kriskent.co.uk

I'm a freelance writer and journalist who produces content for Nature, the Nature Partner Journals, and magazines from international universities and government science institutes. I write across a broad range of science topics, though my primary interests lie within medical science, science policy, disability, and mental health.