Kombucha, a fizzy, fermented tea and trendy new favorite of hipsters and health nuts everywhere, has reached stellar heights as part of an experiment on the International Space Station.
Scientists at the European Space Agency (ESA) have placed the same bacteria and yeasts used to make Kombucha tea on the outside of the orbiting laboratory to see how the organisms fare in the unprotected environment of space.
The Kombucha experiment is one in a series of "Expose" studies run by ESA to find out if multicellular biofilms — a community of microorganisms that can stick together on a surface — can survive in the unshielded environment above Earth's atmosphere.
Scientists have been surprised by the number of organisms that can live unprotected in the harsh conditions of space, including tardigrades — also known as water bears — and lichen.
Last year, ESA sent a new group of biofilms to space inside a container, called the Expose-R2, to see how the organisms' molecular structure reacts to space conditions such as unfiltered sunlight, cosmic radiation, the vacuum of space (a lack of air pressure) and drastic temperature changes. The organisms will endure an 18-month trip, orbiting around Earth with the space station, according to a statement from ESA.
Even though the Kombucha biofilm is made up of microscopic organisms, it is thick enough to be seen with the naked eye. Earth-based tests have shown that Kombucha cultures can protect themselves from harsh conditions by making cellulose-based structures that resist high temperatures and radiation, the statement said.
When mixed with simulated moon dust, the cellulose sucks up minerals and protects the culture even better. This has tantalizing implications for the possibility that biofilms could survive beyond Earth.
"Searching for signs of biofilms in our Solar System is easier than looking for the microscopic life that creates them and could still reveal microbial life beyond our planet," ESA said in the statement.
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