There is something about space that makes it interesting not only among humans but also bacterial strains. Case in point: Bacillus safensis JPL-MERTA-8-2.

Many years ago, Project MERCCURI was launched with the intention of bringing bacteria in space, specifically to the International Space Station (ISS). A huge collaboration, the project generated thousands of swab samples obtained from different surfaces, of which 48 non-pathogenic strains were selected and delivered to the ISS in April 2014.

Today, the researchers discovered that while 47 of these strains functioned just as they would do on Earth, one of them, called Bacillus safensis JPL-MERTA-8-2, stood out since it grew 60 percent better than the B. safensis on Earth. 

The bacterial strain, partly named after NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, came from a Mars Exploration Rover when it was swabbed before it launched sometime in 2004. It is unclear how the bacterial strain ended up on the rover, but it is assumed that no place can ever be considered contaminant-free.

As cool as the discovery is, the researchers including lead researcher and microbiologist David Coil of University of California Davis cannot fully explain it. One assumption is gravity. The ISS does not have true zero gravity but microgravity since it is still influenced by Earth's gravitational force.

"Bugs are pretty small, so gravity is not a major determining factor on their day-to-day metabolism and physiology," he explained in his interview with Motherboard.

"My guess is that something like that is going on here, where for this bug [B. safensis], there's something about less gravity that is favorable to its growth as a community," Coil added.

But just to know the answer, Coil and his team are already working on the strain's genome sequence and testing factors that may have triggered the strong response of the microbe.

For Coil and his team, knowing how Bacillus safensis and the other microbes behave outside Earth is important as it can provide better insight on how to do long-term manned missions, especially since by 2024, the one-way trip to Mars to establish a human settlement on the red planet is expected to begin. In between, there will be plenty of spaceflights as part of the preparation.

The article now appears on Peer J.

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