A new study has revealed that the International Space Station (ISS) is colonized by thousands of species along with humans. As per the study, the 17-year-old, 250 miles high, airtight ISS is host to at least 1,000 and maybe more than 4,000 microbe species. Co-author David Coil a microbiologist at the University of California thinks that the presence of bacteria inside space station harbor is reassuring and it might be a good thing to have some bacteria on spaceships. “Diversity is generally associated with a healthy ecosystem,” he said. According to him a varied population of microbes inhabiting a spacecraft makes the spacecraft healthy. So, as humanity is getting ready to put its foot on Mars which requires approximately an 18 month of the voyage, it becomes important to get detailed information about these microbes.

Actually, the samples of Coil’s research paper were in 2014 as part of Project MERCURRI(Microbial Ecology Research Combining Citizen and University Researchers), a citizen science program. NASA decided to send some earthly microbes to the inhospitable and airtight ISS to see how they adapt to the hostile environment. They found out that Bacillus arybhatt, a bacteria collected from a practice football field used by the Oakland Raiders, grew fastest. And in return, to find out how ISS microbes behave or what characteristics they possess, the UC Davis scientists sent DNA-sampling kits to ISS, swabbed 15 locations around the ISS, then brought the samples back to Earth to analyze the DNA of those microbes. Those 15 locations of ISS include air vents, audio terminal, unit microphone, the tab used to close the privacy panel on the crew sleep compartment, etc. Most places were equivalent to terrestrial home places.

Back on Earth, the swabs were studied by a combined team of professional scientists and citizen scientists from Project MERCCURI and the Human Microbiome Project. The research revealed that each sample possessed between 1,036 and 4,294 operational taxonomic units- a biological measure used to classify closely related organisms that roughly reflects the number of species. Then the samples were compared with the microbiomes of humans and their homes. It was found out that the ISS microbes had almost the same characteristics that of Earthly microbes.

Jenna Lang, the lead author of the study and a former postdoctoral scholar at UC Davis, said, “The microbiome on the surfaces on the ISS looks very much like the surfaces of its inhabitants, which is not surprising, given that they are the primary source. We were also pleased to see that the diversity was fairly high, indicating that it did not look like a ‘sick’ microbial community.” Sharing his experience about the study, Coil said, humans are “completely surrounded by mostly harmless microbes of the Earth, and we see a broadly similar microbial community on the ISS. So space station harbor is probably no more or less gross than your living room.” The latest study was published in the open access journal PeerJ.


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