Microorganisms, the resilient inhabitants of Earth for billions of years, long before humans existed, have adapted to flourish in harsh environments[1]. The capacity of microorganisms to withstand challenging conditions prompts a crucial question: “Can they also survive in space?”. This raises the importance of conducting microbiological risk assessments for space missions that involve transporting humans to planets or moons to explore the potential implications of microbial presence beyond our planet.

The Importance of Space Microbiology

For over 50 years, scientists have been engaged in microbial research in space and for the past decade the International Space Station (ISS) has been a hub for studying space microbiology, evaluating how microbes adapt and survive in space conditions (Figure 1)[2].Recent research extends this exploration to long-duration missions to deep space, such as going to Mars, exploring the effects of microgravity and radiation on microorganisms[3].

International Space Station
Figure 1. International Space Station (Retrieved from NASA)

Microorganisms can become harmful in space due to microgravity and radiation[2], and their behaviour can change as they adapt to the environment. The ISS, although it is a controlled closed environment, is home to a team of astronauts who breathe, exercise, and sweat, making it a breeding ground for microbes. Therefore, studying space microbiology is essential in preventing crew illnesses and material degradation[4].

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Antimicrobial Resistance in Space

Studies have revealed intriguing findings, such as an increased virulence of Salmonella typhimurium on Space Shuttle mission STS-115[6], and E. coli’s adaptation to higher antibiotic gentamicin concentrations in space[7]. In other studies, astronauts on the ISS showed increased genetic markers of antibiotic resistance in saliva compared to pre-flight data, suggesting that bacteria seem to become more resistant to antibiotics when in space[8]. The link between space and microbes and the implications for crew health has yet to be entirely understood.

The Impact on Astronauts’ Microbiome in Space

The human body is filled with bacteria that help regulate the body. A study conducted on nine astronauts who spent 6-12 months in the ISS revealed that they had an increase in skin bacteria linked to rashes and hypersensitivity[9][10], and alterations in gut bacteria associated with inflammation[10]. While these changes are speculative, most studies indicate that astronaut microbiomes return to normal upon return to Earth, this study indicates that the unique environment in space is responsible for these changes[12].

Using Microbes to Improve Space Missions

Scientists are exploring the potential of using microbes to advance deep space missions. Researchers are aiming to create an “integrated biomanufacturing plant” that can produce and recycle materials in space[12]. Recent breakthroughs demonstrate bacteria synthesizing common biopolymers used in manufacturing[13]. On the other hand, a team of scientists engineered a strain of Arthrospira, a photosynthetic microalga, to express acetaminophen which will in turn allow to produce useful drugs[14]. While these projects are in early stages, they hold promise for transforming microbes into essential space crew members.

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Navigating the Cosmos with Microbial Companions

To conclude, the study of complex space microbiology is essential for understanding microorganisms’ on impact on human health, space craft integrity, and their response to extreme environments. This research also holds the potential to change the future of human exploration, envisioning a scenario where these minuscule life forms play a vital role in our journey to Mars and beyond.

References

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