Updated April 8, 2019, 9:39 AM
A person never travels alone – not even in space. Included is a wealth of microbes. Many of them can be found on the ISS space station, not all of them are harmless. Rust and mold are possible consequences. And even the astronauts can be in danger.
The ISS space station can be far from Earth – it is not free of microbes. Scientists have now cataloged the bacteria and fungi that settle on the surfaces in the station.
In particular, micro-organisms that can be associated with humans can be found, reports the team in the magazine "Microbiome". Such results are also important for future long-term missions to space, where germs could pose an immense danger – because the immune system of spacefarers in space has changed and medical assistance is limited.
More than 200 people were already at the ISS
The ISS circles have been permanently inhabited since 2000 by changing crews at an altitude of around 400 kilometers around the earth. More than 200 people were already there. Washington State University's Checinska Sielaff researchers had studied 24 samples taken by three different crews within three months. Eight locations were taken into account, such as a dining table, a sleeping cabin, a toilet, walls and windows.
The number and composition of the fungi found remained stable, changing the bacteria – probably due to the different astronauts on board. Whether the microorganisms found can be dangerous for people on the space station or even the ISS itself, remains to be investigated, Sielaff explained.
Intestinal bacteria found
The most common microbes were staphylococci (26 percent) and certain enterobacteria (23 percent). Another eleven percent belonged to the Bacillus group.
Among other things, the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus was found, which usually lives harmlessly on human skin and mucous membranes, but can also cause dangerous infections. In addition, bacteria from the Enterobacter group were detected, which occur in the human gut and can lead to diseases.
The impact on ISS is still unclear
On Earth, such bacteria are common in gyms, offices, and hospitals, Sielaff said. "Whether these bacteria can make astronauts sick, we don't know, depends on several factors – the health of each individual astronaut and how these organisms behave in space."
Possible effects on the ISS are also still unclear. Some of the proven microorganisms contribute to the decomposition of materials on Earth, said co-author Camilla Urbaniak.
Researchers led by Nitin Singh of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena had discovered bacterial strains that were resistant to a number of antibiotics in an earlier analysis of the space station. In 2015 the samples were mainly taken from an ISS toilet, but also from the fitness room.
Weightlessness promotes the development of resistance
The team reported that some conditions in the room, such as weightlessness, can contribute to the development of resistance. The concrete hazard potential of the pathogens found in this study also remained unclear.
Further research is needed to permanently guarantee the health of astronauts and the functioning of the ISS, said Kasthuri Venkateswaran of the US space agency Nasa, co-author of the current analysis.
"In view of possible future long-term missions, it is important to identify the types of microorganisms that can accumulate in unusual, closed space environments."
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