International Space Station is 'teeming with germs and bacteria'

James Marshall
April 10, 2019

It is yet to be clear whether the pathogen-carrying bacteria can cause diseases to the astronauts living in the closed space station. Astronauts show an altered immune response during missions, which is compounded by the difficulty of giving them proper medical care.

"In addition to understanding the possible impact of microbial and fungal organisms on astronaut health", says Camilla Urbaniak, a microbiologist at NASA's JPL, "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 can not be as easily performed".

Prior to this study, numerous bacterial cultures on the ISS were largely unknown - most could not be determined by traditional methods such as petri dish growth. This would depend on a number of factors, including the health status of each individual.

The microbes on the ISS were mostly human-associated.

These microbes can cause diseases back on Earth.

At 26 percent, the most prominent bacteria was Staphylococcus, followed by Enterobacter at 23 percent and Bacillus at 11 percent.

But the International Space Station is teeming with bacteria and fungi - partly from the 227 astronauts who have passed through its airlock in the past two decades.

An abundance of human-associated organisms discovered include Staphylococcaceae - which originate in the skin and in the nasal passage - and Enterobacteriaceae, which comes from the gastrointestinal tract.

Astronauts on board took swabs of eight locations on the station over a 14-month period, including from the toilet, exercise platform, dining table and a mattress in the sleeping quarters. However, it is unclear if they will have a similar effect on the ISS' inhabitants.

He added that "biofilm formation on the ISS could decrease infrastructure stability by causing mechanical blockages, reducing heat transfer efficiency, and inducing microbial influenced corrosion".

Explaining "the potential ability to form biofilms and the magnitude of actual biofilm formation on ISS surfaces is important during long-term space missions to maintain structural stability of the crew vehicle when routine indoor maintenance can not be easily performed", the report reads. This allowed them to examine if and how the microbial and fungal populations differed between locations and over time. "The results can also have significant impact on our understanding of other confined built environments on the Earth such as clean rooms used in the pharmaceutical and medical industries".

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