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Bacteria Taking Over the International Space Station


The astronauts and cosmonauts on board the International Space Station may be carrying out important experiments, but they are not the dominate life force (at least in terms of numbers). A new report has found that the bacteria taken onto the space station by the terrestrial travellers are now found in every nook and cranny.

Although there are some differences in terms of microbial responses to microgravity and other low-shear environments, there are also some similarities to standard earth-like conditions.

Most microorganisms are deposited from the skin of astronauts, either shed naturally or deposited through actions like washing hands or hair, according to a review of the work described in Controlled Environments magazine.

The extent of colonization and the types of bacteria uncovered are described in the journal Microbiome. A microbiome is the collection of microbes that live in and on the human body at any given time.

The scientists who conducted the investigation into microorganisms examined dust particles and made comparisons to controlled environments back on Earth (the cleanrooms in which spacecraft and parts are constructed.) New molecular microbiological methods, which involve genetic sequencing, were used.

The majority of microorganisms that make up the ISS microbiota are actinobacteria. This is a taxonomic group describing the type of bacteria associated with human skin, made up a larger portion of the microbial community. Examples included Corynebacterium and Propionibacterium. However, some other types of skin bacteria, common on Earth, like Staphylococcus, were not found in high proportions.

While these bacteria are relatively harmless, some pathogens were found. If these occurred in sufficient numbers and were to infect a wound, then this could lead to some troubling skin conditions.

Such studies are important should deep space missions be attempted, such as voyages to Mars, for how microbial communities develop in zero gravity environments could impact upon the health (or disease) of future generations of space travellers.

The research article is titled: “Microbiomes of the dust particles collected from the International Space Station and Spacecraft Assembly Facilities.” The journal is open access, so the full research can be read in detail.

About the author

Tim Sandle

Dr. Tim Sandle is a chartered biologist and holds a first class honours degree in Applied Biology; a Masters degree in education; and has a doctorate from Keele University.