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Detecting bacteria in space

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Posted May 23, 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.

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson walks in space outside the Destiny and Harmony modules of the International Space Station. Image credit: Canadian Space Agency / McGill University

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson walks in space outside the Destiny and Harmony modules of the International Space Station. Image credit: Canadian Space Agency / McGill University

The challenge of maintaining cleanliness within space environments was first documented on the Russian MIR space station, where conditions eventually deteriorated so much that mould 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.

As Dr Emmanuel Gonzalez, metagenomic specialist at McGill explains: “Scientists have a well-documented understanding of broad bacterial families on the ISS however we’ve discovered a more diverse bacterial ecosystem that we ever expected. It’s an exciting step forward in understanding the biosphere that will accompany us into extra-terrestrial habitats.”

Canadian astronaut David St-Jacques vacuums inside the International Space Station in January 2019. Image credit: Canadian Space Agency

Canadian astronaut David St-Jacques vacuums inside the International Space Station in January 2019. Image credit: Canadian Space Agency

The microbial characterisation 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.

As Dr Nicholas Brereton from the University of Montreal notes, “The new methodology provides us spectacular snap-shots of the bacterial world in space and the possibilities of applying this method to explore new microbiome environments are really exciting.”

Source: McGill University

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