Fleeting Wonders: Earth's Hardiest Fungi Survive In Space

Cryomyces fungi in a rock and under a microscope.

Cryomyces fungi in a rock and under a microscope. (Photo: S. Onofri et. al.)

Last week, while everyone was ooh-ing and ahh-ing over astronaut Scott Kelly's space zinnias, other life forms were, in their own quiet way, being far more extreme.

Antarctic fungi who recently spent 18 months outside the International Space Station have returned, and they're doing alright, scientists from the European Space Agency's Lichens and Fungi Experiment (LIFE) announced this week.

The LIFE scientists were testing whether any Earthly organisms could hope to survive in Martian conditions. To find the right recruits, they traveled to the McMurdo Dry Valleys, an Antarctica desert known for its extreme dryness and killer wind. They came back with samples of Cryomyces antarcticus and Cryomyces minteri, fungi that survive these rough conditions by taking shelter within the rocks.

The EXTREME-E Platform, where Earth fungi lived for 18 months while suspended in space.

The EXTREME-E Platform, where Earth fungi lived for 18 months while suspended in space. (Photo: S. Onofri et. al.)

The fungi then hitched a ride to the International Space Station via the Space Shuttle Atlantis, and were placed outside the module in a special platform also designed to withstand hostile environments, called EXTREME-E. There, they were "exposed to Mars-like conditions"—super-high CO2 levels, very moody temperature swings, extremely low pressure, intense ultraviolet radiation, and barely any oxygen or water.

After 18 months of Mars-like madness, "more than 60 percent of the [fungi] studied remained intact," said Rosa de la Torre Noetzel, a co-researcher on the project. 

This is not to say they weren't worse for wear. According to the paper, "less than 10 percent of the samples ... were able to proliferate and form colonies" after their ordeal. Sorry, zinnias—it's hard to relate to others when you've spent years in the cold void of space.

 Every day, we track down a fleeting wonder—something amazing that's only happening right now. Have a tip for us? Tell us about it! Send your temporary miracles to [email protected].