Human nature gives some of us the itch to explore, to take risks, to go where no human has gone before. No wonder exploration of outer space appeals to many of us. It is infinite in the opportunities it presents. The hostile-to-humans environment also presents seemingly infinite problems. We lack technologies for long-term life-support and habitats we can launch into space. Yet scientists are hopeful they’ve found solutions that require minimal infrastructure, are economical, and are environmentally lower impact. Their solution may be the answer to improve sustainability of life on earth. What’s the answer? Microbes.
What Are Microbes?
Microbe is a short, colloquial term for microorganisms, commonly called germs. Of microscopic or ultramicroscopic size, it is an organism we can’t see with the naked eye. There are more microbes than we can count. Some make us sick. Others are vitally important for our health. Some need oxygen to survive. Others don’t. Production of some medications like insulin and antibiotics requires microbes. Some are used to extract certain metals in mines.
There are five major types of microbes: Bacteria, Viruses, Fungi, Archaea, and Protists.
Bacteria are one cell organisms. Some, not all bacteria, need oxygen to survive. Some prefer a warm environment. Others like it cold.
Most bacteria are helpful for humans. They live in or on our bodies and help us digest food or help fight germs. Making certain foods (yogurt, sauerkraut, and cheese) requires using bacteria.
Less than 1% of bacteria cause disease. Bacterial infections can cause tuberculosis, diarrhea, colds, tonsillitis, to name a few.
Antibiotics are effective against bacterial infections and only bacterial infections.
Viruses are not true “living” organisms. They have no cells of their own. Viruses are one or more molecules in a protein shell and require genetic information from foreign cells in order to reproduce. They invade healthy cells and make us ill. Some give us a mild cold. Others cause serious disease like AIDS and COVID.
Medications do not fight viruses. The most effective way to protect ourselves against some viruses is by a vaccination that “trains” our body’s immune system to fight the virus.
Fungi can live almost anywhere. People have eaten fungi for centuries. Yeast, mold, and mushrooms are fungi. Some fungi occur naturally on the skin or in the body. Others can cause infections like athlete’s foot or infections of the lungs, mouth, or reproductive organs. Fungal infections can be life-threatening for people with a weak immune system (like those undergoing cancer treatments).
Archaea are so similar to bacteria that they were called bacteria for a long time. The major differences between archaea and bacteria is that archaea live in extreme environments and they don’t cause diseases. We have found them in boiling hot springs and geysers and in the Arctic and Antarctic ice.
Scientists don’t know for certain why Archaea don’t cause disease.
Protozoa, algae, and slime molds are examples of Protists.
Scientists have been studying ways microbes work on earth for years. Using microbes we already have on or in our bodies or are in the soil and air around us can help us recycle what we have and produce efficient and green energy.
A recent study looked at the role microbes play in waste processing, reclamation, food and medicine production, and “biomining.” Biomining is the process “germs” use to get silicon, iron, aluminum, water, oxygen, and hydrogen out of lunar and Martian rocks or soil. Some of these studies are in progress on earth and on the International Space Station. The hope is that microbes can turn Martian rocks and soil into farmable soil.
Researchers at NASA Ames hope to prove self-replicating, self-repairing Fungi make sustainable planetary habitats. This very short video explains.
Human waste contains a microbe called electricians. Scientists hope this microbe will generate electrical currents for future space exploration vehicles, planetary colonies, or even our own homes. This is infinitely renewable germ power.
Food & Medicine
Microbes are already being used in farming on Earth. They are called agricultural probiotics. Manufacturers use them to create plant stimulants, fertilizers, and soil remediation products used by farmers. Scientists want to know how microbes work in space so they can maximize the sustainability of long-term space flight and planet habitats.
Microbes can mine the nitrogen needed for food plant growth in space. Algae and certain bacteria can be a food source and can also support plant growth.
We have already been studying how manufacturing drugs in the microgravity of space can provide new compounds. During long-term space missions, like the one to Mars, many of the brought-from-Earth medications will expire during the flight or weaken. Researchers believe microbes can generate the medications astronauts will need. Scientists hope this research will identify new vaccines and medical treatments for disease, and even for aging.
Greener Planet & Space
We’ve already had technologies developed for space exploration that we use intermittently and even daily. Don’t think so? Read Is There an Awesome NASA Spinoff in Your Home?
The scientific search for self-sustainable systems to use during space exploration will have an impact here at home. NASA and others have studied microbes for about fifteen years. Their discoveries over the next twenty years may help save us from ourselves. Imagine a time in the not-so-distant future where we have no more pollution of the air, the land, and the sea.
The ways we use microbes may not be infinite, but they can definitely make our lifestyle more sustainable.
Does the idea of eating microbes make you queasy? Or can you see a pollution-free Earth and a terraformed Mars in our not-too-distant future?
- Top image by Nato Pereira from Pixabay
- Second image by PIRO from Pixabay
- Third image by Andreas from Pixabay
- Final image by annca from Pixabay