Detecting bacteria in space

June 10, 2019

Scientists at the University of Montreal and McGill University have pioneered and tested a new genomic methodology which reveals a complex bacterial ecosystem at work on the International Space Station.

Until now, relatively little was known about the different types of microbes found on the space station. The new approach enables researchers to identify and map different species inside the ISS, which will ultimately help safeguard astronauts’ health and be key to future long-term space travel.

The challenge of maintaining cleanliness within space environments was first documented on the Russian MIR space station, where conditions eventually deteriorated so much that mold was flourishing throughout the environment. On the ISS, space agencies have been trying to reduce the amount of microbial growth since it was first launched in 1998. Strict cleaning and decontamination protocols are now in place to maintain a healthy ISS environment. In orbit, crew members regularly clean and vacuum the space station’s living and working quarters yet, as resupply missions arrive at the ISS carrying a range of material including food, lab equipment as well as live plants and animals, new bacteria species are continually being added. Combined with existing human bacteria, as well as the fact that no windows can be opened, the build-up inside the cramped quarters can be significant.

The microbial characterization method has been piloted in space however its application will be far broader according to the scientists behind the technology. Researchers can replicate this approach to address many challenges and environments, including in oceans or soils and it is already being applied to human diseases and microbiomes.

McGill University has the full article