Microbe study could help astronauts on deep space missions

A team of isolated astronauts has found how microbes may act aboard a cramped spacecraft during long missions.
By Carmelo Sheppard | Oct 06, 2017
Understanding the microbes that astronauts bring with them into space will be key to knowing how to keep people safe during extended journeys, a newstudy in the journal Microbiome reports.

When humans finally travel to Mars they are going to carry millions upon millions of tiny microbes with them. While researchers known how such organisms operate on Earth, they are not sure how they will act aboard a cramped spacecraft. Learning about that process is key to making sure the astronauts who participate in long-term missions stay healthy. In addition, such knowledge could also help protect expensive or fragile equipment.

"In addition to potential health risks for the crew, some of these microorganisms could have a negative impact on spacecraft, as they grow on and might damage spacecraft material," explained lead author Petra Schwendner, a researcher at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, in a statement.

In the new research -- which lasted from June 3, 2010, to November 5, 2011 -- six men who lived for over a year inside a mock spacecraft known as Mars500 analyzed the way certain microbes can adapt and spread throughout a confined environment. To do this, the group lived in the ship for 520 days and studied how microorganisms like bacteria adapted to the tight environment.

They did this by using both air filters and swabs to collect 360 microbial samples from different surfaces inside the craft. Such methods revealed that both confinement and human habitation affected the type of bacteria on board.

Microbes associated with humans -- including Bacillusand Staphylococcus -- were the most prevalent in the habitat, but the team discoveredunique bacterial signatures throughout different all different areas. For example, communal areas, sleep zones, the gym, and the bathroom had the highest number and greatest diversity of bacteria, while the lowest microbial concentrations were found inside the medical module.

In addition to their study on diversity, researchers also noted how different cleaning materials affected the organisms.

"Although we located some microbial hotspots, where the number of bacteria was much higher than in other areas, we were quite relieved to find that the overall bacterial counts were within the acceptable limits," added Schwendner, according to Live Science. "Due to appropriate cleaning measures, the microbial community inside the habitat was under control at all times with no or little risk for the crew."

While a high level of bacterial diversity is typically considered healthy, the study showed that such diversity steadily dropped over time. Not only that, but certain resistant pathogens became more common as the trial went on. That scenario could be problematic for astronauts in long-duration isolation because it could eventually make them sick. The team plans to follow up on their research in order to figure out how to deal with such issues.


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