If Bacteria Drink Kombucha, They Stand a Better Chance of Survival on Mars

Tea is useful for all kinds of things, including caffeinating plenty of writers worldwide. There are also many varieties of it, some of which advocates claim to have superpowers regarding the health benefits they grant. Kombucha is one of those – originally thought to have originated in China, it has become adopted worldwide in no small part because of innumerable, dubious “health benefits” of the drink. But now, scientists did find one potential health benefit, at least to bacteria – eating kombucha culture would help them survive on Mars.

According to a study by researchers of the Biology and Mars Experiment (BIOMEX) at the University of Göttingen and the University of Minas Gerais found that a type of bacteria known as Komagataeibacter survived being exposed to Mars-like conditions on the outside of the international space station for a year and a half.

That exposure occurred as part of a mission to the ISS in 2014, where the BIOMEX team sent kombucha cultures to the station. Kombucha as a drink is actually created by fermenting tea using kombucha cultures. The cultures themselves are made up of a symbiotic mixture of yeast and bacteria, and it was these cultures that were sent to the ISS.  

Bacteria surviving on the Martian surface is both a blessing and a potential curse, as described in this UT video.

After the samples were sent back to Earth, they were allowed to grow for another two and a half years before being analyzed by the BIOMEX team. At the end, the team ran a series of bioinformatic analyses on the culture and found that, while most of the symbiotic culture had died, the Komagataeibacter had survived.

That was interesting to the team, who had initially been searching for one particular material that Komagataeibacter happens to produce – cellulose. Cellulose has been suggested as a potential biomarker on alien worlds. The finding that the bacteria that produced cellulose survived in such an environment lends credibility to that theory. 

While this discovery is a preliminary step in understanding how bacteria would survive in off-world environments, it could lead to potential breakthroughs with a better understanding. Cellulose could also provide a way to protect biological consumer goods in space environments. In addition, the surface coating that cellulose provides could serve as a novel drug delivery system, especially for use in space.

Another growth chamber on the ISS, known as EXPOSE-2 that simulates the Martian environment.
Credit – ESA

However, exploring the benefits of cellulose alone wasn’t the only outcome of this research. The BIOMEX team analyzed the full “metagenome” of the culture – in effect, they looked at all the genetic material left after the sample’s sojourn in the Martian environment. They noticed an increased number of genes dealing with antibiotic and metal resistance in the bacteria that survived.

In the long run, that could mean that Martian environs, or something similar, could cause a massive spike in the difficulty of getting rid of a bacterial infection. That is certainly something to keep an eye on as humanity begins to expand throughout the solar system. Maybe some more researchers powered by kombucha will eventually help tackle that problem.

Learn More:
University of Göttingen – Bacterial cellulose enables microbial life on Mars
Santana de Carvalho et al – The Space-Exposed Kombucha Microbial Community Member Komagataeibacter oboediens Showed Only Minor Changes in Its Genome After Reactivation on Earth
UT – Bacteria Could Make Rocket Fuel on Mars
UT – Some Earth Life Could Already Survive on Mars

Lead Image:
EXPOSE-R2 is one of the Mars simulation environments on the outside of the ISS where the experiments were carried out.
Credit – ESA