Samples of bacterial pathogens have been found aboard the International Space Station and the new discovery raises the questions as to the safety of astronauts and their space experiments.
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The bacterial pathogens found at the station were found to be harmless here on Earth, but they could mutate under space conditions and become opportunistic to the health of astronauts, resulting in skin irritations and inflammations to say the least.
The overall aim of the research is to help NASA understand how bacteria could survive in space given the relative cleanliness of the ISS, so as to help astronauts manage their health in space in time to come. Since the research is dependent on genetic analysis, it is still difficult for the researchers to fully conclude if the bacteria are detrimental to the health of astronauts.
Understanding the nature of microbiome or community of microbes is essential to maintaining the cleanliness and safety of ISS equipment while also ensuring the best health for astronauts; because the ISS is an unusual environment, with microgravity, subject to space radiation and increased rates of carbon dioxide, while constantly witnessing human presence.
Scientists had normally cultured bacteria and fungi within a lab setting to be able to fully evaluate the composition of bacteria community at the ISS, but NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists now use DNA sequencing technologies to identify microbes in the ISS, and therefore manage those that could be quite harmful to astronauts.
The research team took air filter samples as well vacuum bag dust from the ISS and analyzed these vis-à-vis those found in clean NASA rooms that are on Earth.
The scientists were able to use dyes to stain the cells of the found microorganisms so as to determine whether they were still alive or dead. By this technique, they were able to know the amount and diversity of bacterial and other fungal population at the ISS and then see how they compare with those in cleanrooms on Earth.
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"By using both traditional and state-of-the-art molecular analysis techniques we can build a clearer picture of the International Space Station's microbial community, helping to spot bacterial agents that may damage equipment or threaten astronaut health, and identify areas in need of more stringent cleaning," said study lead author Kasthuri Venkateswaran.