For anyone who thinks you can escape getting sick in space, that’s probably less likely than getting stalked by a xenomorph. Bacteria stalk us much more easily than fictional alien creatures with the ability to incubate their embryos in a human chest cavity.
At least a chestburster is much easier to detect than something that needs a microscope, and would probably cause much less concern for the group of researchers from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who recently published a study in the journal BMC Microbiology on certain space station passengers that are resistant to antibiotics.
The JPL scientists conducted a genomic analysis of bacteria samples from the ISS toilet (and a few other areas) that revealed some of the micro-monsters crawling around on the space station aren’t affected by the antibiotics supposed to obliterate them. The genomes of these Enterobacter bacteria were compared to those of Enterobacter strains from the home planet to determine which ones had genetic signs of antibiotic resistance.
The antibiotic-resistant strands were not found to be virulent — or infectious and an immediate danger to humans — for now. The issue is that our immune systems are compromised in space, meaning an astronaut could get sick from something that would have no effect on Earth. Organisms also evolve and mutate.
“Understanding how microbial life grows in a closed environment like the ISS will help us [be] better prepared for the health concerns that come with space travel,” study lead Nitin Singh told Astronomy.com. “ISS offers us a first-hand opportunity to study an often overlooked aspect of space travel: how a spacecraft’s microbiome and life support system interact.”
While astronauts are out of danger for now, the findings are a warning for what could happen when humans are confined on a spacecraft for extended periods of time, especially if we have any intention of sending an entire crew to Mars. The ISS is a closed system that is, in some ways, a huge lab experiment that can help scientists find out what unseen dangers may lurk on longer missions. While the space station is kept impeccably clean, its invisible occupants can adapt for survival, and mutating to resist what should wipe them out is one of those adaptations.
The best way to prevent a future Mars plague is to understand the species that astronauts unknowingly cohabit with well enough to figure out what could trigger such mutations. At the very least, knowing exactly when and how often to clean certain shadowy places where these bacteria hang out and breed. It could make the difference between just another passenger and a nightmare superbug.
“Thorough genomic characterization of the strains isolated from ISS can help to understand the pathogenic potential, and inform future missions, but analyzing them in in-vivo systems is required to discern the influence of microgravity on their pathogenicity,” said Singh and colleagues in the study.
Get those things before they morph into xenomorphs.