Mutant space germs threaten International Space Station

NASA goes bug-hunting on the ISS and finds microbes a-plenty where there should be few


Everything that goes to the International Space Station gets clean-roomed to within an inch of its life, but humans are leaving behind a considerable microbial footprint.

That's the finding of research conducted by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and it's a serious problem, because one of the health impacts of a stint on the ISS is a suppressed immune system.

Discussed at Science, the research was triggered by the knowledge that merely swabbing ISS surfaces and seeing what popped up in the petrie dish (NASA's practice for more than a decade) wasn't enough.

For the new research, a JPL team led by microbiologist Kasthuri Venkateswaran partnered with other NASA divisions and a biotech company to see what they could find in spent air filters from the ISS.

It wasn't encouraging: DNA sequencing of bacteria and fungi on the air filters turned up samples of the phylum Actinobacteria, whose genus Corynebacterium and Propionibacterium have species which, Venkateswaran drily notes, are opportunistic pathogens.

Indeed: one of Corynebacterium's members causes diptheria (while a less hostile species gives us yoghurt), while Propionibacterium's various species gives us cheeses, acne, and various inflammatory diseases.

The good news is that the researchers didn't spot any active pathogens in the various species they spotted. However, Venkateswaran would like to extend the research to seek out exactly that: he wants to isolate active bacteria and check them for what the Science story calls “virulence factors”.

The work would also help work out how to protect astronauts on longer missions, such as the hoped-for crewed mission to Mars. ®

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