26. July 2019
Launch of the BioRock space experiment to the International Space Station

Biofilms and microbial mineral exploitation in space

Bacillus subtilis Biofilm
Bacillus subtilis Biofilm
Image 1/2, Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

Bacillus subtilis Biofilm

Bacillus subtilis biofilm grown on a membrane and stained with a fluorescent dye that binds to nucleic acids.

Integration of basalt discs inoculated with Bacillus subtilis spores
Integration of basalt discs inoculated with Bacillus subtilis spores
Image 2/2, Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

Integration of basalt discs inoculated with Bacillus subtilis spores

Biomining reactor assembly – integration of basalt discs inoculated with Bacillus subtilis spores into the BioRock flight hardware. Once in space, a nutrient medium will be added to start bacterial growth.

Focus: Space, astrobiology

The ESA BioRock space experiment was carried into orbit, bound for the International Space Station (ISS), on 25 July 2019 as part of the SpaceX CRS-18 mission. CRS-18 lifted off from Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, aboard a Falcon 9 launcher. The experiment will investigate the growth of biofilms and their ability to extract minerals and use them as nutrients (biomining) in microgravity conditions. This will be directly compared with results obtained under Mars and Earth gravity conditions simulated using a centrifuge on the ISS. The findings will contribute towards a better understanding of the growth of microorganisms in space, which is also key to bioregenerative life support systems, the formation of biofilms and microbial ore extraction. In future, such processes could be used in the biomining of economically valuable chemical elements such as copper on other planets. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is playing a key role in the experiment.

Three species of bacteria are being investigated in the BioRock experiment: Sphingomonas desiccabilis, Bacillus subtilis and Cupriavidus metallidurans. "Our research focuses on the organism Bacillus subtilis," says Petra Rettberg from the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine. "We are curious to see how well this bacterium can extract nutrients from the minerals of the basalt that was inoculated with Bacillus spores for the space experiment." Over the coming weeks, the experiment will be put into operation on the ISS and is expected to remain in space until the end of August 2019. The experiment will then return to Earth for analysis and evaluation, with the samples later being examined in the astrobiological laboratories at the DLR site in Cologne.

Biofilms are among the oldest visible signs of life on Earth and could also perhaps be found to be the earliest forms of life on other planets and moons in the Solar System. A biofilm is a structured community of microorganisms on a surface, encapsulated in a self-formed matrix made of extracellular polymeric substances (EPS). This EPS matrix holds the microorganisms together in their three-dimensional arrangement and enables the biofilm to adhere to surfaces. The properties of microorganisms living within a biofilm generally differ substantially from those of microorganisms of the same species existing independently. The dense environment of the film allows them to cooperate with one another, interact in many ways and protects these minute organisms from external influences. This means that microorganisms in biofilms are highly resistant to various chemical and physical effects and can be used for a range of applications in space.

The ESA's BioRock experiment involves the UK Centre for Astrobiology in Edinburgh, which is responsible for the scientific coordination, along with the SCK•CEN Belgian Nuclear Research Centre in Mol and the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine in Cologne.

Contact
  • Falk Dambowsky
    Editor
    German Aerospace Center (DLR)
    Media Relations
    Telephone: +49 2203 601-3959
    Fax: +49 2203 601-3249
    Linder Höhe
    51147  Cologne
    Contact
  • Dr Petra Rettberg
    German Aerospace Center (DLR)
    DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine
    Telephone: +49 2203 601-4637
    Sportallee  54a
    22335 Hamburg
    Contact
  • Felix Fuchs
    German Aerospace Center (DLR)
    DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine
    Telephone: +49 2203 601-4209
    Sportallee  54a
    22335 Hamburg
    Contact
  • Ralf Möeller
    German Aerospace Center (DLR)
    DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine
    Telephone: +49 2203 601-3145
    Sportallee  54a
    22335 Hamburg
    Contact
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