UK Centre for Astrobiology


Meet the Space Microbiology group

Principal Investigator: Rosa Santomartino

I am a space microbiologist with an interest in understanding how microbes behave under space conditions, and how we could use this knowledge to support space exploration in a sustainable way. I am also keen in understanding how the knowledge acquired by studying these mechanisms can help us solving compelling environmental issues on Earth. During my postdoc​​ in Charles Cockell's group, I developed an interest in the concepts of ISRU, BLSS, and more generally how we could harness the power of microorganisms to sustain human space exploration. In 2020, I was invited to collaborate with Italian astrobiologists for the creation of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) Roadmap for Space Life Sciences. Since April 2022, I am pursuing a Leverhulme supported project on plastic-biodegrading microorganisms, which has the aim to study how microorganisms could be used to degrade, recycle and upcycle plastics and other waste (e.g., electronic waste) in space, and how this could inform terrestrial technologies as well. This project is in collaboration with Wallace Lab. I am also part of the Science for Sustainability HUB at the University of Edinburgh. I am strongly committed in supporting equality, diversity and inclusion in academia and anywhere else, and I believe in the importance of public outreach.

Rosa Santomartino

Background: My love for space science starts back from when I was 8, when a teacher organized a series of educational events with an astronomer, and I decided I wanted to become an astronaut. However, in high school I discovered the amazing world of biology and life science, and I was so fascinated that I decided to pursue a career in biology, instead. I obtained a BSc in Biotechnology at the University of Rome "Tor Vergata", with a thesis on Applied and Environmental Microbiology, and a MSc in Genomics, Industrial and Environmental Biotechnology at "Sapienza" University of Rome, studying autophagy and mitophagy in budding yeast. I obtained my PhD in Molecular Biology (2018) at "Sapienza" University of Rome, under Prof. Michele M. Bianchi supervision, working on the molecular effects of hypoxia using yeast as a model system. I also obtained a FEMS Research Grant who allowed me to undertook an Internship at Claude Bernard University Lyon 1 (France), and I did brief a internship at Universidad Nacional Autònoma de Mexico (Mexico). This granted me the title of Doctor Europaeus. I became part of the UK Centre for Astrobiology in 2018, when I obtained a position as STFC funded Postdoctoral Research Associate in microbial astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh, in Charles Cockell's group. During this position, I performed two space microbiology experiments onboard the International Space Station (BioRock and BioAsteroid), who brought me to collaborate with NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA). Since 2022, I obtained a prestigious Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship and I started working on my own independent project on microbial plastic biodegradation for space and terrestrial applications.

Current students

Fiona Bunn, PhD student.

Lead supervisor: Louise Horsfall; Second supervisor: Charles S. Cockell. 

Fiona is a PhD student in Louise Horfall group, collaborating with us to elucidate the bioleaching mechanisms of one of the microorganisms used in the BioRock experiment.

Sinéad Corbett, SH student.

Lead supervisor: Rosa Santomartino

Sinéad is studying if biodegradation of some plastic components in the BioAsteroid hardware occurred during the spaceflight onboard the International Space Station. 

Kenzie Gibson, SH student.

Lead supervisor: Davide Michieletto, Second supervisor: Rosa Santomartino

Kenzie is elucidating velocity and branching patterns in the mycelium formation of filamentous fungi. 

Former students

Alfred Gudgeon performed a MSc thesis dissertation in Synthetic Biology and Biotechnology in 2021, performing a metabolomic study of bioleaching microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) grown on meteorite material. Alfred also performed a summer internship in our group in August/September 2022.

Chloe Yeung performed a MSc thesis dissertation (literature review) in Biotechnology in 2020 on the effects of microgravity on secondary metabolite production, suggesting limitations and applications to human space exploration.