Astronauts Study Microbes on the International Space Station



Astronauts can now perform microbial DNA sampling on the International Space Station. This opens up new areas of practical research.

The Genes in Space-3 Project enables NASA astronauts and biochemists to identify and treat microbial ailments in space. The new project will also help to identify potential lifeforms on other planets and conduct practical experiments on the International Space Station.

First, astronauts subject microbial samples to a Polymerase Chain Reaction. This is a technique used in molecular biology to magnify copies of a specific DNA sequence, so the microbes can be identified.
The first microbes sampled were commonly found in places humans live. That was no surprise, however, the number of microbes found on the International Space Station was a surprise.

“We have had contamination in parts of the station where fungi was seen growing or biomaterial has been pulled out of a clogged waterline, but we have no idea what it is until the sample gets back down to the lab. On the ISS, we can regularly resupply disinfectants, but as we move beyond low-Earth orbit where the ability for resupply is less frequent, knowing what to disinfect of not becomes very important.” according to Sarah Wallace a NASA microbiologist.

After the Johnson Space Center was damaged by Hurricane Harvey, the need for germ sampling on the International Space Station became more evident because astronauts were unable to send samples to Earth. Furthermore, as missions are extended, the need to monitor microbial activity a necessity.

Currently, the Genes in Space-3 Project is being used to study microbial behavior and the distribution in microgravity. Research has proven that some microbes receive a genetic boost in microgravity.

Humans contaminate everything they touch. These includes the International Space Station. The ability to identify the microbes and study them in microgravity will help to diagnose astronaut ailments.

By Jeanette Smith


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Image Courtesy of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License


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