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Kombucha Bacteria Are Hitching a Ride on the International Space Station

Researchers want to see if the robust bacteria can survive space.
July 30, 2015, 12:20pm

Ancient fermented tea Kombucha might already be hip. But it just got cooler, as a sample of the bacteria and yeast used to make the stuff is currently fermenting away in orbit. Space-brewed Kombucha anyone?

The European Space Agency (ESA) reports that the building blocks of Kombucha are currently bolted to the outside of the International Space Station, on a third-class spaceflight ticket with no protection from the elements. That's because aside from being a historical drink, Kombucha might also offer insight into extraterrestrial life, or serve as a useful space nanomaterial.

What sets Kombucha apart from your average brew is its bacteria and yeast cultures. These make a cellulose-based structure that can resist high temperatures and even radiation.

When tested on Earth, researchers found that these features made Kombucha particularly resilient, and figured it would likely survive a trip to space. But there was only one way to find out for sure: Lift off a cocktail of Kombucha-creating specimens into orbit, and let them slowly ferment as they circle the Earth.

The researchers took inspiration from previous "Expose" studies (where they sent organisms up into space), which found that a surprisingly large selection of organisms were space-proof. Microscopic grubs called water bears and lichen are some species that have already proven they're capable of surviving harsh space conditions.

The Expose-R2. Image: Roscosmos

ESA sent the Kombucha-creating cultures up on the Expose-R2 last year. The 18-month experiment sees how organisms and their molecular structures react when they're exposed directly to cosmic radiation, unfiltered solar light, and vacuum and temperature changes up in space. The Expose-R2 currently houses a whopping 758 samples, including the Kombucha cultures.

Back on Earth, researchers have also found that Kombucha reacts well when laced with simulated Moon dust. The cellulose structure sucks up minerals from the lunar dust, and creates an additional layer of protection for the culture.

Aside from helping us understand how microbial life might grow beyond Earth, the Expose studies could lead to the creation of some new space materials. Organic chemicals break down to form new ones when they're exposed to the the Sun's high-energy ultraviolet radiation, and therefore studying how new compounds form in orbit could lead to new nanomaterials for the space industry.