NASA has a watchful eye on the bacteria in the International Space Station (Microbial Observatory (M.O.)). The ISS hosts a variety of microbes, some of which endanger the health of astronauts. As part of its monitoring, M.O. has detected antibiotic-resistant bacteria on the toilet seat of the ISS.
On space probes, there are always microorganisms that serve as storage facilities. NASA's Microbial Observatory brings samples of these passengers back to Earth for various reasons to study. They want to know about the diversity of the microbial flora on the ISS and want to know how they change over time.
As it turns out, there are some differences between microbes on Earth and the same load in outer space. The microgravity of the space station can in some cases increase the antibiotic resistance of microbes and make them more dangerous to humans.
The M.O. found five strains of Enterobacter bugandensis bacteria and compared them to three clinical strains. They analyzed the genetic makeup of all these strains and found that the ISS strains contained genes associated with antibiotic and toxic substances, although the Enterobacter strains found are non-pathogenic to humans. This may not be remarkable per se except in the light of a previous M.O. Study.
In May 2018 the M.O. found that microgravity made bacterial strains more resistant to antibiotics. They picked up 20 strains of moderately dangerous bacteria and compared them with their terrestrial duplicates to see what impact microgravity had on their toxicity. They found that the space bacteria showed increased antibiotic resistance. If space missions take longer and we send astronauts to six-month missions to Mars, it could cause serious problems for astronauts' health.
Among the threats to astronauts, microbes are not making headlines. Radiation and low gravity are the biggest topics of conversation. However, NASA is increasingly concerned about bacteria, both in the ISS itself and the human biome in the astronaut's belly. The M.O. investigates five different aspects of bacteria on the ISS:
- The risk of infection and disease for astronauts in a confined environment.
- The risk of contamination of air, liquids and food.
- The similarities and differences between microbial communities on the ISS and on Earth in nominal and extreme environments.
- Understand which microbes thrive in space flight and in weightlessness.
- Understand how microbes adapt to weightlessness and space flight from their mandate to understand these things, and there are no alarm bells. They say that more research is needed. However, the potential dangers are easy to recognize. All five ISS strains were either intermediate or completely resistant to strong antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin. They were all resistant to the antibiotic oxacillin, which is commonly used to treat staple infections. Perhaps the most alarming finding was that all five showed resistance to the so-called fluoroquinolones, which are probably the most potent antibiotics.