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For bacteria, life in space is better than on Earth

Scientists aren't sure yet why Bacillus safensis behaved so differently on the International Space Station.
By Brooks Hays   |   March 24, 2016 at 11:25 AM

DAVIS, Calif., March 24 (UPI) -- Scientists are exploring long-term space travel from every conceivable angle. For a team of researchers at the University of California, Davis, the angle is bacteria.

Last year, researchers working on Project MECCURI sent 48 strains of bacteria to live on the International Space Station. New analysis suggests the majority of those strains behaved much the same as they do on Earth.

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But one species, Bacillus safensis, thrived in microgravity.

In a new paper on the project's early findings -- published in the journal PeerJ -- scientists report that Bacillus safensis in space grew 60 percent better than its control strain on Earth.

Researchers have previously documented the ability of bacteria to survive on the outside of spacecraft, but the latest project focused on bacterial growth inside.

"The warm, humid, oxygen-rich environment of the ISS is a far cry from the vacuum of space," David Coil, a microbiologist at UC-Davis and lead author on the study, told The Conversation.

Normally, scientists grow bacteria in a liquid medium, but that doesn't work inside the space station. Researchers had to develop a solid substrate for the bacteria to grow in.

Scientists aren't sure yet why Bacillus safensis behaved so differently, especially when all 47 other strains displayed similar behavior and growth rates on Earth and in space.

"I would love for someone else to follow up the result with Bacillus safensis and see if we could learn more about what happened," Coil said.

The species was originally found on spacecraft in Florida and California, but researchers isolated this particular strain from a doorknob in New York City.

Researchers say studying bacteria in space is key to ensuring astronauts and alien environments aren't put at risk by interplanetary space travel.

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