International Space Station Teeming with Microbes?

Duh! Of course it is! 

NASA recently released its Microbial Tracking series 1 results report and the internet is freaking out. But as usual, for the wrong reasons.

karen nyberg ISS 2008
Astronaut Karen Nyberg on the ISS

So What’s All the Fuss?

Well basically NASA monitored the microbial load of preselected, representative areas on the International Space Station (ISS). They chose eight locations to monitor during three flight missions over 14 months.  An astronaut sampled the areas and the samples were sent back to be cultured and analyzed. 

Unsurprisingly the vast majority (68%) of the organisms cultured are associated with the human microbiota. As the astronauts visit the ISS they inevitably leave behind some organisms from their skin, gut, glands, etc.  Of the bacteria isolated the majority consisted of Staphylococcus, Enterobacter and Bacillus. Once again, this should not be surprising news as all three are commonly found on or in humans. 

The fuss arises because many species of these bacteria have the potential to become pathogenic. But let me repeat that. They MAY become pathogenic. In healthy human beings they often are not an issue but the immune system of astronauts is often altered and pathogenic organisms are a big concern. 

But to me, what I found most concerning was not the potential for one pathogenic organism but the potential for biofilm formation. 

Biofilms are exactly what they sound like, a collection of microorganism cells that have stuck to one another to form a film. Biofilms can be extremely problematic in controlled environments like cleanrooms and ISS. The potential for infection is great and those infections are often hard to treat as biofilm formation promotes antibiotic resistance. Biofilms can also lead to corrosion and that has the potential to be extremely dangerous in an environment as extreme as outer space.  


So What’s Next?

NASA plans on continuing its Microbial Tracking series experiments. Microbial Tracking series-2 will occur during SpaceX 6, 7, and 8. They will sample the above mentioned eight surface areas again as well as the crew (preflight, one day after boarding, one month after boarding and 6 months after boarding) and air samples in five preselected areas. 

Samantha Cristoforetti 2016
Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti on the ISS

What’s the Goal Anyways? Who Cares?

Well I care! And you should too! 

There is a smorgasboard of reasons why this data may be important. One it may allow NASA to get ahead of health issues for future astronauts. cataloguing the microbes and any potential illnesses they lead to may help treat astronauts and space travellers in the future. 

NASA is also interested in accumulating more knowledge about what organisms thrive (and which don’t) in microgravity and the extreme conditions in space. 

The data may also help with the development of bioload policies for future long duration missions (Hello, Mars!). Travelling to these far away planets and/or moons will require a) decontaminating materials beforehand and b) controlling potential growth afterwards. 


I cannot wait until the data for Series-2 is released and we can build upon the knowledge of the effects of space and microgravity on microorganisms. 



NASA Report

NASA Mission 2 Plans


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