Just Hanging Out on the ISS

Bad news for germaphobic would-be astronauts—scientists have found that a certain strain of bacteria grows about 60% better on the International Space Station than on Earth.

The microbe in question, Bacillus safensis, actually has a long history of space travel. It was first discovered in NASA clean-room facilities in the late ‘90s, and may even have been a stowaway to the Red Planet on the Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity in 2004.

The new findings were part of a citizen science experiment, called Project MERCCURI, in which scientists and members of the public collect microbial samples for transport to the International Space Station to determine how they would grow and develop in low-gravity conditions.

Of course, the ISS is hardly a hostile environment, so the fact that human beings or their microbial commensals would thrive there is not entirely surprising. After all, the old Russian MIR space station was practically crawling with fungi, molds, and bacteria.

“The warm, humid, oxygen-rich environment of the ISS is a far cry from the vacuum of space,” observes Dr. David Coil, of UC Davis, lead author of the research. He also points out that the real importance of the study is that of the 48 strains tested, most grew at normal, pedestrian Earth-rates, with no surprises whatsoever.

It is, however, slightly surprising that certain strains grow better off of planet Earth.

Microbial Space Travel

Rather than just a matter of idle curiosity, the study has implications for the future of space travel, and even touches upon larger questions of the origin and spread of life in the universe.

If humankind is really to begin the process of extending its civilization beyond the comforting ambit of our home planet, it’s important to understand not only how human physiology operates during prolonged periods in space, but also how our “microbiome” of parasites, bacteria, viruses and other clingers-on behave in the same environment.

As far as the theory of “panspermia,” the idea that planets can be seeded by dormant organisms from outer space, the discovery—while it says nothing conclusive—is another indication that life can certainly adapt to almost any conditions, including the harsh ones of space.

So just remember to pack hand sanitizer the next time you head to space.

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