Unknown Microbes Successfully Identified In Space For The First Time

Peggy Whitson conducting the experiment on the ISS. NASA

Astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have successfully identified microbes in space for the first time, opening the door to exciting new research in orbit.

The achievement took place in 2017, thanks to a project called Genes in Space-3. Published in Scientific Reports, researchers have described how they were able to sequence samples on the ISS.

“These findings illustrate the potential for sequencing applications including disease diagnosis, environmental monitoring, and elucidating the molecular basis for how organisms respond to spaceflight,” the team wrote in their paper.

New microbes can spring up on the ISS in areas that become contaminated, with fungi or biomaterial sometimes seen growing. To deal with these outbreaks, disinfectants can be used, but the team need to know what the microbes are in order to treat them.

That becomes more of a problem as we move further away from Earth orbit to destinations like the Moon and Mars, where resupply missions are less readily available.

So in a series of experiments last year, NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson worked on the ISS with a team in Houston to practice identifying microbes on the station. She collected samples by pressing petri plates against contaminated areas, and then placed them in a chamber known as the Microgravity Science Glovebox (MSG).

Here she transferred cells from growing bacterial colonies on the plates into test tubes. The DNA of the organisms was then isolated, and a device called the MinION was used to sequence the DNA. Sending this data to the ground, the team were able to work out what organism the DNA belonged to.

“Right away, we saw one microorganism pop up, and then a second one, and they were things that we find all the time on the space station,” Sarah Wallace from NASA's Johnson Space Center, the study's lead author, said in a statement.

To validate the results, the samples were sent back to Earth to repeat the tests. These confirmed the findings made by Whitson, proving that she had identified unknown microbes in space for the first time.

The results could be hugely beneficial to future missions like to the Moon and Mars. Being able to identify what microbes are growing in a spacecraft can help astronauts keep their environment clean, and prepare for any problems caused by disease or other infection.

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