Did you know that life exists in space? According to a recent study by NASA, there are plenty of micro-organisms aboard the International Space Station, or ISS.
NASA asked astronauts to collect samples on the ISS to catalog the bacteria and fungi growing in the microgravity environment.
Although the ISS has been in operation for over 20 years, this is the first time scientists have studied the bacteria and fungi aboard the spacecraft.
With dreams of returning to the Moon and exploring Mars, NASA needs to understand how microbes and fungi behave in space. This is essential to making long-term space travel safe for humans.
But we know that microorganisms have a big impact on our lives on Earth. Any time you touch a door handle or gas pump, you’re seeing microbes in action. Fortunately, most of us have a healthy immune system that wards off pathogens.
However, space is a different environment. Astronauts’ immune systems work differently in microgravity, and we don’t know very much about microbial behavior in space. This could lead to pandemics that are difficult to treat, which threaten humanity’s ability to explore the universe.
Learn how NASA collected these organisms from space and what it means for the future of space travel.
Collecting samples on the ISS
NASA asked astronauts Terry Virts and Jeffrey Williams to collect microorganisms aboard the ISS. The astronauts used wipes to collect samples at the ISS windows, toilet, exercise platform, dining area, and sleeping area.
But NASA knew a one-and-done collection wouldn’t help them understand how organisms evolve in space over time. That’s why they collected samples from three flights over the course of 14 months.
Once the samples returned to Earth, NASA analyzed them at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. They recently released a study detailing how microorganisms change in space, and what it might mean for human life beyond the stars.
Unsurprisingly, most of the micro-organisms on the ISS were from human origin, meaning they came on board with the astronauts.
NASA detected the existence of fungi in the ISS. Fortunately, the fungal communities didn’t show any changes over time and remained stable.
Although the fungal species don’t pose a direct threat to human health, they have the capability to corrode the walls of the ISS itself. It would be catastrophic to have a breach in the ISS walls, so scientists are now addressing action plans to treat fungi.
The most surprising results came from the bacteria living aboard the ISS. Unlike the fungi, the bacteria changed over time. Thanks to changes in the ISS astronauts, the microbial diversity of the ISS also changed over time.
ISS bacteria is similar to bacteria you find on Earth in places like gyms and offices.
The problem is that the microbes found on board the ISS are very rare on Earth, tend to be resistant to antibiotics, and cause illness. For example, the five species of Enterobacter on the ISS can cause soft tissue damage and respiratory infections. Fortunately, these strains don’t have a high infection rate, but that could change as they adapt to life in space.
The future of human health in space
It’s clear that the ISS offers a unique ecosystem for microorganisms. There isn’t an active threat to human life for now, but scientists will need to understand how microorganisms evolve in the closed environment of space to protect human health.
In the future, NASA plans to study the long-term effects of microgravity and the ISS spacecraft itself on these microorganisms. This is a critical step in preserving human health and spacecraft infrastructure during the future of exploration.