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 in Synthetic Biology.

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.

Frederick Wilkins, MPhys student in Physics

Supervisors: Rosa Santomartino, Davide Michieletto

Frederick will characterise the large scale organisation of fungal mycelium, alone and in co-colture with other microorganisms.

Kenzie Gibson, MPhys student in Physics 

Supervisors: Rosa Santomartino, Tyler Shendruck, Aidan Brown

Kenzie's dissertation will focus on the modelling of microbial behaviour under real and simulated microgravity conditions, elucidating similarities and differences. 

Margherita Gagnoni is a visiting Master student from the University of Bologna (Italy). During her research period here in Edinburgh, she will focus on the microbiological and geological characterisation of plasticrusts.

Former students

Luca Tonietti was a visiting PhD student from the University of Naples Parthenope (Italy). During his visiting period in Edinburgh, Luca studyied microbial biomining on a variety of different rocky substrates. 

Anisha Matheen was a MSc student in Biotechnology, whose dissertation focused on the characterization of some fungi isolated from various environments inside the International Space Station, and their potential biotechnological relevance.

Johanna Rice was a SH student in Molecular Genetics who studied plastic biodegradation capacity of unicellular fungi under simulated microgravity.

Frederick Wilkins followed up on Sinéad's project, studying if biodegradation of some plastic components in the BioAsteroid hardware occurred during the spaceflight onboard the International Space Station for his SH dissertation. 

Haoming Chen, followed up on Kenzie's project on mycelium formation, as a SH Physics project.

Kenzie Gibson performed a SH dissertation in Physics in 2022, elucidating velocity and branching patterns in the mycelium formation of filamentous fungi. 

Sinéad Corbett performed a SH dissertation in Physics in 2022, studying  if biodegradation of some plastic components in the BioAsteroid hardware occurred during the spaceflight onboard the International Space Station. 

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.


International collaborators

Buz Barstow, Cornell University.

Donato Giovannelli, University of Naples "Federico II".

Ralf Moeller, DLR German Aerospace Centre.

Barbara Cavalazzi, University of Bologna.

Rebecca Prescott, NASA Johnson Space Center, University of South Carolina, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa.

Cyprien Verseux, Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM), University of Bremen.

Luis Zea, University of Colorado.

Marta Cortesao, DLR German Aerospace Centre.

National collaborators

Louise Horsfall, Chair of Sustainable Biotechnology, University of Edinburgh

Davide Michieletto, Royal Society University Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh

Joanna Sadler, Chancellor's Fellow, University of Edinburgh

Tyler Shendruk, Reader, University of Edinburgh

Stephen Wallace, Professor in Biotechnology, University of Edinburgh