Asteroid-munching microbes could mine materials from space rocks

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The bacterium Sphingomonas desiccabilis can extract minerals from basalt

UK Centre for Astrobiology/College of Edinburgh

An experiment on the Worldwide House Station (ISS) has proven that microbes can extract invaluable or helpful components from rocks in microgravity, suggesting “biomining” may be key to creating use of asteroids.

Microbes leach components out of rocks by releasing compounds that speed up chemical reactions, reminiscent of acids that dissolve the rocks and permit the microbes to eat the weather they should survive. Charles Cockell on the College of Edinburgh within the UK and his colleagues despatched an experiment known as BioRock to the ISS final 12 months to research whether or not this may work within the low gravity on the area station.


“Microbes have been mining rocks as a result of they should get vitamins for billions of years,” says Cockell. “A whole lot of the copper and gold on the Earth immediately is mined utilizing microbes, so this technique shouldn’t be pie within the sky.”

BioRock consisted of 36 small experiments, every containing a chunk of basalt rock and a liquid containing some further vitamins the microbes want. Among the experiments contained microbes as properly, which had been allowed to feast on the rare earth elements within the rocks for 3 weeks.

When the researchers measured the quantities of those components leached by the microbes, they discovered that one – Sphingomonas desiccabilis – extracted uncommon earth components simply as properly in microgravity because it does on Earth. The opposite two microbes aren’t recognized to leach these components on Earth, so it was no shock that they didn’t on the ISS both. All of them behaved the identical in Earth gravity, microgravity and Mars gravity, which was simulated utilizing a centrifuge.

“There was purpose to suspect this may be totally different, however, the truth is, we discovered no distinction in any respect,” says Cockell. “This exhibits that experiments on Earth offer you helpful info that can be utilized in any quantity of gravity.” Ultimately, he says, biomining could possibly be used to harvest useful materials for human settlements on the moon or Mars so that they don’t have to be shipped from Earth.

Journal reference: , DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-19276-w

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