Microgravity tomatoes, yogurt bacteria, and plastic eating microbes are headed to the ISS

SpaceX's resupply mission brings exciting new science.
‘Red Robin’ dwarf tomato growing in Veggie hardware at the Kennedy Space Center. Image courtesy of NASA
Crops grown in completely artificial environments are key for future space travel. NASA

The International Space Station is generally a pretty busy place, and this week sounds like no exception. Arriving this week aboard SpaceX’s 26th commercial resupply mission (CRM) is a host of supplies for upcoming experiments, including microbes capable of devouring plastic, developing shelf stable yogurt-like concoctions, and a crop of space tomatoes.

[Related: The ISS’s latest arrivals: a 3D printer, seeds, and ovarian cow cells.]

First up is Pseudomonas putida, the plastic-craving microorganism. Organized by SeedLabs in a collaboration with MIT Media Lab Space Exploration Initiative, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Weill Cornell Medicine, and Harvard Medical School, the upcoming experiments will test out the microbes’ capabilities in space, potentially providing important advancements for both pollution reduction on Earth as well as uses for astronauts during future lunar and Martian explorations. As Fast Company explained earlier today, Pseudomonas putida is not only capable of breaking down PET, an extremely common plastic often used in bottling and packaging, but also turning those broken down compounds into β-ketoadipic acid, “a nylon monomer that can be made into fabric or used in existing manufacturing processes.”

Researchers are hopeful that the microbes’ development in a zero-gravity, high UV radiation-environment might actually strengthen the organisms, which would be a boon both for future space missions as well as humans’ attempts to rein in pollution here on Earth. “Studying how the bacteria fare in space also generally helps glean more information about the microbes’ biological makeup, and if they could withstand changing environmental conditions on Earth,” Fast Company adds.

Multiple containers containing ISS bionutrient experiments.
Credit: NASA

Pseudomonas putida isn’t the only microscopic arrivals aboard the ISS this week. As Tech Crunch notes, astronauts are receiving additional microbes as part of “the second phase of an attempt to create a shelf-stable pre-yogurt mix that, when hydrated, results in the bacteria naturally producing a target nutrient” like glucose and other complex molecules for medications. Gaining a better understanding of how these processes develop in space could also help future explorations’ achieve greater self-sufficiency in producing meals and necessary drugs.

[Related: NASA astronaut Victor J. Glover on the cosmic ‘relay race’ of the new lunar missions.]

Speaking of meals: ISS denizens have a batch of cosmic tomatoes to enjoy. These “Red Dwarf” miniature tomatoes are part ongoing experiments aimed at growing healthy food in micro- and zero-gravity environments using only artificial lighting. While recent work focused on leafy greens like spinach, the Veg-05 project is concerned with larger products like the red fruit—yes, fruit, remember? After a 104-day growth period from seed to finished food, astronauts will reportedly get a chance to conduct their own taste test. No word on whether space-bound bacon and lettuce will be available on the ISS by then, unfortunately.