Microbe mining in space

Written by Lauren Woolfe

UK Centre for Astrobiology’s novel investigation aims to utilize microbes for metal and mineral mining from solid rock in space

Recently, scientists on the International Space Station have created a miniature biomining-reactor prototype in space, which extracts metals using microbes. “We hope to gain insights into how microbes grow in space and how we might use them in human exploration and settlement of space, from mining to turning rocks into soils on the Moon and Mars,” principal investigator Charles Cockell (University of Edinburgh, UK) revealed.

By exploiting these microbes, the researchers hope to be able to obtain much-needed materials from other planets, in a method described as ‘in situ resource utilization.’

The novel investigation, known as BioRock, attempts to study microbe growth in both microgravity and simulated Martian gravity. BioRock began by “…studying three types of microbes, giving us the first comparison between behaviors of different microbes in the space environment,” stated Cockell.

“For this investigation, we are using basalt rock that is naturally very vesicular or contains a lot of spaces, to see how the bacteria interact within these cavities in microgravity,” Rosa Santomartino (Cockell Lab) explained.

Along with determining attachment and biofilm formation, the BioRock experiment will determine how effective each microbe is at removing 20 different elements from the basalt rock, providing a detailed analysis of the interaction between bacteria and rock under normal, micro- and simulated Martian, gravity.

“Microbes are everywhere – in our food, our homes, and our industrial processes – and they do hugely important things in our everyday life…as we move into space, we can harness microbes to make our lives easier and improve the success of space settlements. BioRock is about forming a new space-faring alliance with the microbial world – using microbes to advance a permanent human presence in space,” concluded Cockell.

“Understanding how microbes interact, grow and extract elements from a rock surface in microgravity and simulated Mars gravity will tell us, for the first time, if low gravity affects the ability of microorganisms to attach to rock surfaces and perform biomining. In other words, whether extra-terrestrial mining is possible.”