Researchers working with NASA say the discovery of three new strains of bacteria growing on the International Space Station (ISS) could prove helpful in growing crops in space and perhaps on Mars.In a study published Monday in the scientific journal Frontiers in Microbiology, researchers in the United States and India working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have discovered four strains of bacteria living in different places on the ISS – and that three of them, until now, were unknown to science.All four strains belong to a family of bacteria found in soil and freshwater; they are involved in nitrogen fixation and plant growth and can help stop plant pathogens. In other words, they are bacteria helpful to the growth of plants.  It was not entirely unexpected to find soil bacteria growing on the ISS. For years, astronauts living on the space station have been growing plants for research and food.The three new bacteria were sequenced and found to all belong to the same, previously unidentified species, with genetic analysis showing them to be closely related to Methylobacterium indicum. The researchers proposed calling the novel species Methylobacterium ajmalii, in honor of the renowned Indian biodiversity scientist Ajmal Khan.In a statement, JPL researchers Kasthuri Venkateswaran (Venkat) and Nitin Kumar Singh said the strains might possess “biotechnologically useful genetic determinants” for the growing of crops in space. Further experimental biology, however, is needed to prove that it is, indeed, a potential game changer for space farming.Venkat and Singh said with the U.S. space agency one day looking to take humans to the surface of Mars – and potentially beyond – the U.S. National Research Council has recommended the space agency use the ISS as a “test-bed for surveying microorganisms.”Along with the JPL researchers, scientists from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles; Cornell University and the University of Hyderabad in India contributed to the study. 

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