Kombucha on Mars? It could be key for astronauts’ survival off Earth

an experiment bay on the exterior of the space station.

The Expose-R2 facility on the International Space Station. As part of ESA’s Expose-R2 project, 46 species of bacteria, fungi and arthropods are inside those containers as they spend 18 months bolted to the outside of the International Space Station.
(Image credit: ESA)

If the difference between staying on Earth and leaving for the moon or Mars is that you won’t get off-world kombucha, then scientists are working to assuage your fear. 

Not only might some of the microbes that help ferment kombucha survive in harsh conditions outside Earth’s atmosphere, but scientists also speculate the organisms could provide future space-dwellers on Mars or the moon with far more than a tasty beverage. These bacteria might help astronauts create the oxygen they need to breathe.

“Due to their ability to produce oxygen and function as bio-factories, this biotechnology could significantly enhance future space missions and human space exploration efforts,” Nicol Caplin, an astrobiologist at the European Space Agency (ESA), said in a statement.

Related: Scientists Send Kombucha to Space in Search for Extraterrestrial Life

Kombucha cultures, which are multi-species mélanges of bacteria and yeast, are key to creating the beverage. Add one such culture to room-temperature sweetened tea and, as long as the tea has plenty of sugar, microbes within will consume those nutrients, multiply and ferment the tea.

Kombucha cultures are already known to survive harsh conditions on Earth, partly because the microbes that make them up stick together and form a resilient mat under adverse temperatures or radiation. In fact, when ESA sent some bacteria found in kombucha cultures to ride on the International Space Station’s exterior for 18 months, scientists observed the organisms repairing their DNA even after damage from cosmic radiation.

And space mission planners care about kombucha (beyond it being a tasty beverage) because the associated microbes can generate oxygen. This means that, if these microbes’ oxygen-making powers can be harnessed in space, astronauts wouldn’t have to generate the life-sustaining element from another source. 

So, even though we have never intentionally taken microbes to the moon, successive Artemis program missions might take kombucha cultures with them to test the substance’s mettle.

“I hope to see our [kombucha] samples attached to the Lunar Gateway in the future,” Caplin said, “or perhaps utilized on the surface of the moon and beyond.”

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Rahul Rao is a graduate of New York University’s SHERP and a freelance science writer, regularly covering physics, space, and infrastructure. His work has appeared in Gizmodo, Popular Science, Inverse, IEEE Spectrum, and Continuum. He enjoys riding trains for fun, and he has seen every surviving episode of Doctor Who. He holds a masters degree in science writing from New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program (SHERP) and earned a bachelors degree from Vanderbilt University, where he studied English and physics. 

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