In a paper published in the Microbiome journal on Monday, researchers found that the International Space Station has become littered with microbes, namely Staphylococcus, Pantoea and Bacillus, that are found to carry numerous infectious diseases, and are very much capable of thriving in extreme conditions such as in a space station.
The ISS was built in 1998 and has been visited by approximately 222 astronauts with 6 re-supply missions nearly every year until August 2017. Every time an astronaut goes up to the station, they can potentially bring in bacteria allowing to thrive within the sealed space station. Though the capsules that astronauts travel are built in sterile environments before they are sent into orbit and routine monitoring takes place. On Earth, our immune system works against infections we have to fight on a day-to-day basis, however, in space, the odds are against us since, our immune systems don’t get along with the conditions of microgravity.
Aleksandra Checinska Sielaff, a post-doctoral researcher at Washington State University who collaborated with NASA’s JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) on the study of this paper, says that they are not fully certain if these bacteria are harmful to the humans. Nonetheless, based on her observation she infers that whether the bacteria can cause diseases in astronauts on the ISS is yet unknown, however, it would depend on numerous factors, such as the health status of each individual and the function of these microbes in the space environment. Though these bacteria live in space, however, they didn’t come from space. They are passengers just like our astronauts who travelled to the International Space Station from Earth. Many of these bacteria are also found on the surface of our skin. For example Staph.
It’s very much important to monitor these bacteria in order to ensure that they don’t become infectious and antibiotic-resistant.
These bacteria are capable of forming biofilms which are the communities of tightly knitted bacteria, which are usually found accumulated in places like shower heads. Apart from health concerns, biofilms can cause mechanical blockages and corrosion.
If these microbes, one day become infectious or antibiotic-resistant, or both, we will have to deal with the first real space public health issue.
As of now, it looks as if the space hubs like ISS can be home for bacteria, only as long as the humans go there. Therefore, before we set out on missions to colonise space, we need to bring these bacteria under control!