Earth microbe prefers living on meteorites

Tetyana Milojevic

Earth microbe prefers living on meteorites

VIENNA—The microbe above is happier living on meteorites than on Earth. So reported scientists here this week at the annual meeting of the European Geosciences Union. The microscopic organism—an archaea known as Metallosphaera sedula (seen as a cluster of tiny dots sitting in the middle of the meteoritic dust particle pictured above)was originally found in 1989 living in Italy's hot acidic sulfur springs around Vesuvius. These so-called chemolithotrophs normally feed on iron and sulfur minerals in rocks and leave behind a residue of heavy metals. This makes them useful in mining operations as an environmentally friendly alternative to leaching the metals with toxic chemicals. In the lab, the process looks very similar to watching glass jars full of beer ferment with yeast. To test these microbes’ "astrofermination" capability, the researchers gave them an energy drink made of powdered meteorite and recorded how much nickel they released in the jars. The microbes went on a space dust binge—consuming their samples in only 2 weeks as compared with the 2 months it took for them to munch through their Earth samples. The team says its work could have implications for asteroid mining, where rare metals embedded in space rocks could be extracted and brought back to Earth for use in technological advancements. Future work will include testing the survivability of the microbes in a vacuum and with synthetic martian minerals.

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