Bacteria Can Eat Cleaning Products And This Is Bad News For NASA

The clean room of the Phoenix spacecraft. NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Ian Malcolm is right. Life finds a way, even when we try our best to stop it. One such situation is the contamination by microorganisms of NASA’s spacecraft and clean rooms. Now researchers have discovered how bacteria can survive where it shouldn’t: They eat the cleaning products.

The team studied Acinetobacter, a predominant family of bacteria that are found in the clean rooms. They discovered that once sources of food become scarce, these resourceful microbes begin to biodegrade the cleaning agents using during spacecraft assembly. The results are published in Astrobiology.

The strains that were analyzed showed a remarkable ability to break down isopropyl alcohol and Kleenol 30, both of which are cleaning agents commonly used in these type of facilities. Understanding how contaminants survive on spacecraft is important if we want to send spaceships to study places where life might exist, like Europa or Enceladus, without messing with it.

"We're giving the planetary protection community a baseline understanding of why these microorganisms remain in the clean rooms," lead researcher Professor Rakesh Mogul, from Cal Poly Pomona, said in a statement. "There's always stuff coming into the clean rooms, but one of the questions has been why do the microbes remain in the clean rooms, and why is there a set of microorganisms that are common to the clean rooms."

The discovery was uncovered by Mogul and colleague Professor Gregory Barding Jr. as part of a student project. Five undergraduates in biology, 14 undergraduates in chemical science, and three chemistry graduate students took part in the research. The 22 students analyzed strains of Acinetobacter collected from the clean rooms where Mars Odyssey and Phoenix spacecraft were assembled.

"We designed the project to give students hands-on experience – and to support the learn-by-doing philosophy of Cal Poly Pomona. The students did the research, mostly as thesis projects in the areas of enzymology, molecular microbiology and analytical chemistry," explained Mogul.

The researchers suggest, as a precaution, that cleaning products be diversified and rotated to try, as best as possible, to clean the spacecraft. We are yet to send a craft into an environment that we believe to be suitable for life, but that could soon change. If we want to truly investigate the regions of Mars where water might be seasonally flowing or the oceans of icy moons, we need to have pristine spacecraft. And this work is a step in that direction.   

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