Human pee and fungus: two new strange ways to stay alive on Mars snowballed by scientists

Human pee and fungus: two new strange ways to stay alive on Mars snowballed by scientists

When will humans land on Mars? A recently proposed report 2038 as the most likely launch year for a manned Mars mission – largely because that is when Earth and Mars are closest to the end of the 2030s – with 2048 classified as the date of a “late launch”.

Human settlement on the red planet may come much later, but if and when that happens, there will be enormous challenges to overcome. Where will future Martians live? What should they eat? Both of these questions are beginning to be investigated by researchers – and some of the early answers are a bit strange.

Two new research articles have highlighted the possible significance of human waste and kombucha to build and maintain a colony on the red planet.

Smelly “space bricks” on Mars

The first scent of a plan to build settlements on Mars comes from a study published in the journal PLOS One which reveals that bacteria and urea from astronauts’ urine can be used to make “space bricks”.

Researchers from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), believe that the recipe will require marshmallows, guar gum, a bacterium called Sporosarcina pasteuriiurea and nickel chloride (NiCl2). The resulting space slurry could then be poured into molds of any shape, with the bacteria converting the urea to crystals of calcium carbonate. The result would be a kind of cement to hold the soil particles – and bricks together.

“The bacteria seep deep into the pore spaces and use their own proteins to bind the particles together, reducing porosity and leading to stronger bricks,” said Aloke Kumar, associate professor of mechanical engineering at IISc, one of the paper’s older authors.

Adding nickel chloride is the key because without it, the iron-rich marshmallow is toxic to the bacteria.

Next up is a project to test whether these “space rocks” will withstand the effects of Mars’ thin atmosphere and low gravity, using a chamber that reflects the atmospheric conditions on Mars in the lab.

Mushrooms on Mars

A second breakthrough to sustain human life on Mars comes from kombuchawhose survival under Mars-like conditions was studied by a team of researchers in Germany and Brazil as part of the Biology and Mars Experiment (BIOMEX) project.

Sometimes called tea fungus or fungi, kombucha is made by fermenting sugared tea using kombucha cultures, a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.

The latest newspaper, published this month in Limits in microbiologyreveals that the fermentation process of the popular black or green tea allows a cellulose-producing bacterial species to survive.

This is important because cellulose – which is probably responsible for the bacteria’s survival under extraterrestrial conditions – could be used on Mars as a preservative, a food additive and a fiber supplement in extraterrestrial settlements.

Cellulose-based membranes or films can also be useful for producing various consumer goods.

“We found that the simulated Martian environment drastically disrupted the microbial ecology of the kombucha cultures,” says Bertram Brenig, head of the University of Göttingen’s veterinary institute. “But we were surprised to discover that the cellulose-producing bacteria of the genus Komagataeibacter survived.”

The same team sent earlier kombucha cultures to the International Space Station (ISS) 2014.

This is useful information for future Mars colonists, but it also suggests that bacterial cellulose may be a biomarker for extraterrestrial life.

If humans are ever to settle on Mars, much science must be done in advance. “I am so excited that many scientists around the world are considering colonizing other planets,” Kumar told the Space Bricks team. “It may not happen fast, but people are actively working on it.”

Wish you clear skies and big eyes.

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