Science & Technology

Microbes found in the International Space Station (ISS)

Microbes have been studied for a long time. They are said to be ubiquitous, meaning they can be found everywhere. We restricted this knowledge only in the Earth’s environment.

However in 2014, Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov discovered bacteria from samples swabbed from the outside surfaces of ISS. There were no bacteria when the ISS was launched in 1998. It was theorised by Shkaplerov that they were “alien” microbes.

“That is, they have come from outer space and settled along the external surface. They are being studied so far and it seems that they pose no danger” he said.

At that time, there was no knowledge about what types of microbes were present or how they got to the ISS. But what we do know is that there are so many different groups or species of microbes. This is because of their ability to adapt. Microbes are very tiny, invisible to the naked eye and their genetic composition gives them the advantage of mutation.

When a microbe finds itself in a new environment it tries to adapt, not to cause harm but to survive. It is a natural to all living beings. For instance, animals who live in very cold places tend to develop thick furs to keep themselves warm.

Similarly, microbes don’t take long to mutate and then start reproducing. Of course, some groups cause disease. However, even that is a way of their survival.

Since bacteria had been discovered on the ISS, a lot of research has been going on to study them. Erica Hartmann with her team from the Northwestern University published her research in the journal mSystems.

“Based on genomic analysis, it looks like bacteria are adapting to live – not evolving to cause disease. We didn’t see anything special about antibiotic resistance or virulence in the space station’s bacteria” said first author Ryan Blaustein.

Recently NASA researchers have catalogued the different microbes and fungi found on the ISS which is published in the journal Microbiome. The team believes that this knowledge will go a long way of having safety measures for astronauts.

The most prominent bacteria were Staphylococcus (26% of total isolates), Pantoea (23%) and Bacillus (11%). They included organisms that are considered opportunistic pathogens on Earth, such as Staphylococcus aureus (10% of total isolates identified), which is commonly found on the skin and in the nasal passage, and Enterobacter, which is associated with the human gastrointestinal tract.

Since microbes, most especially bacteria are present on our skin and inside our body, they can be deposited in any environment. No one can be sterile. Even when we carry objects, the bacteria on our skin can be transferred to them. As microbes can be so easily transferred, it is reasonable that they originated from Earth.

Dr. Urbaniak, joint first author added “Some of the microorganisms we identified on the ISS have also been implicated in microbial induced corrosion on Earth. However, the role they play in corrosion aboard the ISS remains to be determined. In addition to understanding the possible impact of microbial and fungal organisms on astronaut health, understanding their potential impact on spacecraft will be important to maintain structural stability of the crew vehicle during long term space missions when routine indoor maintenance cannot be as easily performed.”

The team also noted that the microbe community changed more than the fungal community. All this could be due to the presence of different astronauts and the equipment they use there.

This is an interesting discovery. Just like how harmless and harmful microbes were discovered by scientists and with that knowledge we are able to protect ourselves better. This will go in the same way so that the microbes present in the ISS don’t become parasitic and cause the astronauts to be sick.

Garima Nabh is the founder of New Age Magazine.

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