Space Invaders: Microbes

Written by Lillie Reiter, IAQ Coordinator and Environmental Investigator Mold can exist in the harshest of conditions but did you know if can exist in space? Yes, there is mold aboard the International Space Station (ISS). When NASA took humans and transported them into space in an enclosed area, the question of what to do about mold probably didn’t cross anyone’s mind. For 16 years, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, the crew have been living (sweating, using the bathroom, getting sick) inside the ISS. The microbes they release stick around because the space station is essentially sealed – like living in an airplane that never gets opened. Today, it’s filled with non-human life and has its own unique microbiome (a community of microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses that inhabit a particular environment). Mold in space Astronauts currently aboard the ISS collect swabs of surfaces and send samples back to Houston for identification. This process can take weeks or months. According to Sarah Castro-Wallace, a microbiologist at NASA Johnson Space Center, mold found are “Staphylococcus aureus…once in a while; Staphylococcus epidermidis all the time.” Other fungi known to make a presence on the space station are Aspergillus, Penicillium, Sphingomonas, Burkholderia, and Micrococcus luteus. Identification of microbial growth can be helpful in determining its cause and how best to remedy the situation.  Space station Welcome into the picture microbiologist Kate Rubins. She applied to be an astronaut to get a break from the grant-writing process and got accepted! After seven years of training, Ms. Rubins was launched into space with the mission of putting together a microbiology lab using minimal equipment. She only has 115 days to complete it but after spending time in central Congo in a remote village, she said working in space was very similar. Recently, a wall panel in the ISS turned green with mold and, with Rubins help, identification with real-time observations is soon to be possible. The development of a lab is very important because certain types of bacteria and fungi change gene expression in space, producing more virulent strains and making identification very important to astronauts aboard the ISS. One thing is for sure; this expansion of science aboard the ISS will certainly lead to new and exciting discoveries off planet.  Read more here!

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