New research published in the journal Microbiome shows that the International Space Station houses trillions of microorganisms, including fungi and bacteria. The latter have been detected in the air and on the surfaces of the space lab. Furthermore, some of these might even be harmful.
For the new study, the researchers did DNA sequencing to have an idea of all the organisms living in the space station. They obtained them from two samples: one from an air-filter screen to find out about the organisms living in the recycled air of the station, and another from a vaccum cleaner bag representing the population of microbes on the surface of the station.
The results showed that most of the bacteria are associated with human skin; only few of them were found in clean rooms on our planet.
Some strains bearing potential hazard to human health were also identified; they might be specially harmful to people with compromised immune system.
“Astronauts are often in a compromised state in microgravity because their bodies are going through so many changes,” said the lead author of the study, Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a microbiologist at JPL. “In an immuno-compromised condition, some of these bacteria could lead to disease.”
More in-depth analysis of the pathogenic bacteria must be done to determine if they can actually lead to diseases, and if they can make toxins.
“One or two cells that are virulent may be there, but that might not be enough to cause disease,” Venkateswaran said.
Knowledge of the effects of the microbes is deemed to be important in light of NASA’s intentions to have more manned missions in space.
“We are stepping in the right direction, and NASA is aware that these are the things required for tomorrow’s human mission to Mars,” he said.