Human pee and mushroom tea: Two weird new ways to stay alive on Mars sniffed out by scientists

When will humans land on Mars? A suggested recent report 2038 is the most likely launch year for a crewed mission to Mars – largely because that’s when Earth and Mars are closest in the late 2030s – 2048 being considered as the date of a “late launch”.

Human settlement on the Red Planet could come much later, but if and when it does, there will be enormous challenges to overcome. Where will future Martians live? What are they going to eat? Both of these questions are beginning to be investigated by scientists – and some of the early answers are a little strange.

Two recent research articles have highlighted the possible importance of human waste and kombucha in building and maintaining a colony on the red planet.

Smelly ‘space bricks’ on Mars

The first whiff of a plan to build colonies on Mars comes from a study published in the magazine PLOS A which reveals bacteria and urea from astronauts’ urine could be used to make “space bricks”.

Researchers from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), in collaboration with the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), believe the recipe will require Martian soil, guar gum, a bacteria called Sporosarcina pasteuriiurea and nickel chloride (NiCl2). The resulting space slurry could then be poured into molds of any shape, with the bacteria converting the urea into crystals of calcium carbonate. The result would be a kind of cement to hold the soil particles together – and bricks.

“Bacteria infiltrate deep into pores, using their own proteins to bind particles together, decreasing porosity and leading to stronger bricks,” said Aloke Kumar, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at IISc, one of the main authors of the paper.

Adding nickel chloride is essential because without it, the iron-rich Martian soil is toxic to bacteria.

Next comes a project to test whether these “space bricks” will withstand the effects of Mars’ thin atmosphere and weak gravity, using a chamber that replicates the atmospheric conditions found on Mars in the laboratory.

Mushroom tea on Mars

A second breakthrough in sustaining human life on Mars comes from kombuchawhose survival in Mars-like conditions has been studied by a team of scientists in Germany and Brazil as part of the Biology and Mars Experiment (BIOMEX) project.

Sometimes called tea mushroom or mushroom tea, kombucha is produced by fermenting sweetened tea using kombucha cultures, a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.

The last paper published this month in Frontiers in microbiologyreveals that the popular fermentation process of black or green tea allows a cellulose-producing bacterial species to survive.

This is important because cellulose – which is likely responsible for the survival of bacteria in extraterrestrial conditions – could be used on Mars as a preservative, food additive and fiber supplement in alien colonies.

Cellulose-based membranes or films could also be useful for producing various consumer goods.

“We found that the simulated Martian environment drastically disrupted the microbial ecology of kombucha cultures,” said Bertram Brenig, director of the Institute of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Göttingen. “However, we were surprised to find that cellulose-producing bacteria of the genus Komagataeibacter Survived.”

The same team previously sent kombucha cultures to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2014.

This is useful information for future Mars colonists, but it also suggests that bacterial cellulose could be a biomarker of extraterrestrial life.

If humans are ever to settle on Mars, then a lot of science needs to be done beforehand. “I’m so excited that many researchers around the world are considering colonizing other planets,” said Kumar of the space bricks team. “It may not happen quickly, but people are actively working on it.”

I wish you clear skies and big eyes.

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