Bacterial cellulose could enable microbial life on Mars

The University of Göttingen was part of an international study team that looked at the possibility of kombucha cultures surviving under Mars-like circumstances. Kombucha is a drink made by fermenting sugared tea with kombucha cultures, which are a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. It's also known as tea fungus or mushroom tea. Despite the fact that the kombucha cultures' microbial ecology was decimated by the simulated Martian environment, a cellulose-producing bacterial species survived. Frontiers in Microbiology reported the findings.

With the help of the European Space Agency, scientists from the "Biology and Mars Experiment" (BIOMEX) project launched kombucha cultures to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2014. The goal was to learn more about cellulose's resilience as a biomarker, kombucha's genetic architecture, and its ability to survive in alien environments. The samples were reactivated on Earth and cultured for another two and a half years after spending a year and a half in simulated Martian conditions outside the ISS.

Professor Bertram Brenig, head of the University of Göttingen's Institute of Veterinary Medicine, led a team of researchers from the University of Minas Gerais in Brazil in sequencing and bioinformatic analyses of the metagenomes of reactivated cultures and individual kombucha cultures. "Based on our metagenomic analysis, we found that the simulated Martian environment drastically disrupted the microbial ecology of kombucha cultures. However, we were surprised to discover that the cellulose-producing bacteria of the genus Komagataeibacter survived." 

The findings show that the bacteria's ability to survive in alien environments is due to the cellulose they make. This is also the first proof that bacterial cellulose may be used as a biomarker for alien life, and that cellulose-based membranes or films can be used to safeguard life and produce consumer products in interplanetary communities.

Another fascinating feature of these research might be the creation of innovative medication delivery methods, such as for the development of space medicine. Investigations into changes in antibiotic resistance were also a focus: the research team was able to show that the total number of antibiotic and metal resistance genes were enriched in the exposed cultures, implying that these microorganisms could survive despite antibiotics or metals in the environment. "This result shows that the difficulties associated with antibiotic resistance in medicine in space should be given special attention in the future," the researchers stated.