JAN 09, 2019 6:06 AM PST

Space Bacteria Are Adapting to Survive

WRITTEN BY: Carmen Leitch

Microorganisms that end up on the  International Space Station (ISS) just do their best to survive, researchers at Northwestern University have found. The environment on the ISS is not pushing microbes to mutate into virulent or antibiotic-resistant bugs, they determined. Although bacteria found on the ISS do carry genes that are different from their earthbound counterparts, these new genes are not creating dangerous bugs, they’re just responding to their environment and trying to live. The findings have been reported in mSystems.  

The International Space Station photographed by Expedition 56 crew members from a Soyuz spacecraft after undocking. / Credit: NASA/Roscosmos

"There has been a lot of speculation about radiation, microgravity and the lack of ventilation and how that might affect living organisms, including bacteria," said the study leader Erica Hartmann, an assistant professor of environmental engineering in Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering. "These are stressful, harsh conditions. Does the environment select for superbugs because they have an advantage? The answer appears to be 'no.'"

This research is not only important to astronauts that travel on shuttles or stay onboard the ISS for months. It’s also relevant to tourism efforts that will take people to space, or potential missions to Mars.

"People will be in little capsules where they cannot open windows, go outside or circulate the air for long periods of time," noted Hartmann. "We're genuinely concerned about how this could affect microbes."

The ISS has plenty of microbial passengers on board, which have hitched a ride with astronauts or stowed away in the cargo. A freely accessible database maintained by The National Center for Biotechnology Information contains genetic data from many of those microbes. In this study, the researchers utilized that database to compare two strains of bacteria that live on Earth and have been found on the ISS, Staphylococcus aureus and Bacillus cereus. 

"Based on genomic analysis, it looks like bacteria are adapting to live, not evolving to cause disease," said the first author of the work Ryan Blaustein, a postdoctoral fellow in the Hartmann lab. "We didn't see anything special about antibiotic resistance or virulence in the space station's bacteria."

In an effort to survive on inhospitable surfaces, bacteria might mutate, or microbes that carry genes that enable them to get by are the ones that last. For ISS microbes, those genes might help the microbes deal with stress, gather nutrients, grow and live in a harsh place.

"Bacteria that live on skin are very happy there," Hartmann said. "Your skin is warm and has certain oils and organic chemicals that bacteria really like. When you shed those bacteria, they find themselves living in a very different environment. A building's surface is cold and barren, which is extremely stressful for certain bacteria."

The researchers point out that while their study is good news for astronauts and space tourists, it’s still possible for sick people to spread virulent bacteria around space shuttles and stations.

"Everywhere you go, you bring your microbes with you," Hartmann explained. "Astronauts are exceedingly healthy people. But as we talk about expanding space flight to tourists who do not necessarily meet astronaut criteria, we don't know what will happen. We can't say that if you put someone with an infection into a closed bubble in space that it won't transfer to other people. It's like when someone coughs on an airplane, and everyone gets sick."

Learn more about why researchers study space bacteria from the video above. In the video below, learn more about what happens when someone does get sick in space. 


Sources: AAAS/Eurekalaert! via Northwestern University, mSystems

About the Author
  • Experienced research scientist and technical expert with authorships on over 30 peer-reviewed publications, traveler to over 70 countries, published photographer and internationally-exhibited painter, volunteer trained in disaster-response, CPR and DV counseling.
You May Also Like
FEB 21, 2021
Microbiology
Some Gut Microbiome 'Signatures' Are Linked to Healthy Aging
FEB 21, 2021
Some Gut Microbiome 'Signatures' Are Linked to Healthy Aging
The gut microbiome is now known to play a crucial role in our health and well-being. And scientists are starting to lear ...
FEB 25, 2021
Coronavirus
COVID Long-Haulers Get Official Recognition
FEB 25, 2021
COVID Long-Haulers Get Official Recognition
For months, many people that have recovered from cases of COVID-19 have reported experiencing a range of lingering healt ...
MAR 17, 2021
Microbiology
Novel Bacteria Discovered on Space Station
MAR 17, 2021
Novel Bacteria Discovered on Space Station
Scientists have known that wherever humans go, we carry microorganisms with us, and the International Space Station is n ...
MAR 25, 2021
Immunology
The Immune System Impairs Antibiotic Effectiveness
MAR 25, 2021
The Immune System Impairs Antibiotic Effectiveness
Nitric oxide, a molecule produced by the immune system, can negatively impact antibiotics’ effectiveness, says a s ...
APR 28, 2021
Cell & Molecular Biology
Learning More About the Sugars That Mediate Immune Interactions
APR 28, 2021
Learning More About the Sugars That Mediate Immune Interactions
Sugar is something sweet to add to your food, but just like fat, different types of sugars play important roles in biolo ...
MAY 17, 2021
Microbiology
Bacteria Can Time Their DNA Replications by the Circadian Clock
MAY 17, 2021
Bacteria Can Time Their DNA Replications by the Circadian Clock
The circadian rhythm is the body's clock, and it influences physiology at the cellular level; it can help animals, inclu ...
Loading Comments...