Just as Commander Scott Kelly and Flight Engineer Kjell Lindgren prepare for a spacewalk scheduled for Wednesday to upgrade and service the International Space Station, a new study just released shows that the closed environment is filled with germs.
The study, published in the journal Microbiome highlighted the most comprehensive hunt for bacteria and fungi ever conducted on the ISS.
Researchers collected dust from equipment on the spacecraft and compared it to “cleanrooms,” sterile rooms here on Earth that are equipped with airlocks to reduce contamination of equipment sent into space.
All payloads are required to go through these clean rooms, but the humans hopping aboard ISS are filled with microbes. The astronauts shed skin cells with nearly every activity they do, from washing their hair to eating a meal, potentially contaminating their environment.
Analysis of the dust found that actinobacteria, a type of bacteria associated with human skin, made up a larger portion of the microbial community aboard the ISS than in the cleanrooms. To ensure thorough analysis, researchers combined the traditional tactic of culturing bacteria and fungi in a lab, with state-of-the-art sequencing technology to fully understand the ISS’s microbial community quickly and detect pathogens that pose a risk to the health of astronauts.
Two groups of opportunistic pathogens that can lead to infections were also found in the ISS dust samples. These types of pathogens typically are not threatening on Earth, but may lead to infections, inflammation and skin irritation in the astronauts as they orbit nearly 250 miles about our planet. However, the research did not specify how significant the risk factor of these pathogens leading to infection in the astronauts actually is.
“We need to know what we’re breathing in a closed environment,” says Kasthuri Venkateswaran, who led a collaboration that included investigators from two NASA space centers, three universities and a biotech company. “It’s always better to know before things get out of control.”
The study may lead to stricter cleaning protocols. Further analysis of the impact the microbial community can have on the ISS will be vital for future long-term missions, like the journey to Mars.
Lauren Scrudato is the Associate Editor of Laboratory Equipment. www.laboratoryequipment.com