There is no denying that wherever humans travel they take a host of bacteria with them. This included traveling in outer space. And while science fiction often fixates on the potential danger we earthlings may face from aliens microbes invading our world, NASA scientists have been studying the effects our bacteria will have in space and how the effects of space flight on bacterial physiology is relevant to human health, especially during future long-duration space missions.
While the majority of bacterial biofilms (formed when micro-organisms attach themselves too surfaces living in communities) are generally harmless, some threaten human health and safety when they exhibit greater resistance to our immune system’s defenses or antibiotic treatment. They can also cause severe damage vital equipment aboard spacecraft by corroding surfaces or clogging air and water purification systems that provide life support for astronauts.
In fact, Cynthia Collins, Ph.D., primary investigator for the study and assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., reports that “Biofilms were rampant on the Mir space station and continue to be a challenge on the International Space Station, although but we still don’t really know what role gravity plays in their growth and development.”
“Before we start sending astronauts to Mars or embarking on other long-term spaceflight missions, we need to be as certain as possible that we have eliminated or significantly reduced the risk that biofilms pose to the human crew and their equipment,” she continued.
She also noted that experiments conducted simultaneously aboard the space shuttle Atlantis, scientists at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and astronauts in the space station in 2010 and 2011, using cultured samples of P. aeruginosa bacteria showed that cultures grown in space contained more cells, more mass and were thicker than the control biofilms grown on Earth.
“Microbes experience ‘low shear’ conditions in microgravity that resemble conditions inside the human body, but are difficult to study., added Collins, who also emphasized that, “Beyond its importance for astronauts and future space explorers, this research also could lead to novel methods for preventing and treating human disease on Earth, especially in controlling the spread of infections in hospitals.”