NASA finds bacteria that can grow on lunar soil

March 14th, 2008 - 3:27 pm ICT by admin  

London, March 14 (ANI): New experiments by NASA have suggested that a bacterial life form found on Earth can grow in otherwise inhospitable lunar soil.

According to a report in New Scientist, a hardy life form called cyanobacteria, which is found in hot springs in Yellowstone National Park in US, can live in water as hot as 75 oC (167 oF).

The bacterias survival instinct in such extreme temperatures has led scientists to determine that future colonists on the Moon might be able to use the cyanobacteria to extract resources from the soil that could be used to make rocket fuel and fertiliser for crops.

NASA plans to send astronauts back to the Moon starting in 2020, with the ultimate aim of setting up a permanent lunar base. Sustaining such a base will be a major challenge, because it is so costly to fly food, fuel and other supplies there with rockets launched from Earth.

That is where cyanobacteria and their amazing abilities come in. Cyanobacteria grow in water-rich environments. They are technically a type of bacteria, but like plants, they produce their own food via photosynthesis.

Though lunar soil is inhospitable to plants because many of the nutrients it contains are locked up in tough minerals that the plants cannot break down, experiments led by Igor Brown of NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, US, show that some cyanobacteria can grow on lunar soil, if supplied with water, air and light.

Brown and his colleagues tried growing a variety of species of cyanobacteria on materials designed to approximate the lunar soil.

The simulated soil contained lots of an iron-titanium mineral called ilmenite, which is relatively abundant on the Moon.

When put in a container with water and simulated lunar soil, the cyanobacteria were found to produce acids that are amazingly good at breaking down tough minerals, including ilmenite.

According to Brown, he envisions growth chambers for cyanobacteria being set up on the Moon, as part of a multi-step process for making use of the resources bound in the lunar soil. The chambers would be supplied with water, sunlight and lunar soil to allow the cyanobacteria to grow.

Cyanobacteria harvested from the chambers could then be further processed to make use of the elements they extract from the lunar soil.

For example, they could be broken down by other bacteria, resulting in a nutrient-rich soup that could be used as fertiliser for food plants grown in hydroponic greenhouses. Methane given off by the breakdown of the cyanobacteria could be used as rocket fuel.

Further in the future, iron and other elements extracted from the soil by cyanobacteria could be collected and concentrated, supplying metal for building machines and other products on the Moon, said Brown. (ANI)

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