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ISS Space Science

The International Space Station Is Home To Potentially Dangerous Bacteria (sciencemag.org) 112

sciencehabit writes: There's a little known, dirty story about the International Space Station (ISS): It's filled with bacteria and fungi. A new study has found compelling evidence that microorganisms from human skin are present throughout the station, and some of the bugs could cause serious harm to astronauts.The most concerning finding was from the "high-efficiency particulate arrestance" (HEPA) air filter used in the ISS: 99.65% of the viable sequences they retrieved came from Actinobacteria. The Actinobacteria phylum includes Corynebacterium and Propionibacterium; each genus was found in the ISS samples at a high level, which is "problematic," say the researchers, because they both have species that are opportunistic pathogens. Astronauts who live in microgravity for prolonged periods also can have compromised immune systems.
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The International Space Station Is Home To Potentially Dangerous Bacteria

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:14PM (#50814671)

    Its not like the thing just launched.

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by MobSwatter ( 2884921 )

      True and the presentation of this in the way they make the case makes these pesky bacteria terrorists. Almost to the point they in the way they have been acting might decide to scrap Skylab 2.0 if they could get a drone into orbit. This would scrap the world's space program or it's debilitated remains of it, on the other side of the coin rather than being immune compromised the human genome would adapt to kill or coexist with these pesky bacteria but then again, that isn't what captain pedo-bear in the Va

      • by KGIII ( 973947 ) <uninvolved@outlook.com> on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @12:59AM (#50815091) Journal

        Whenever I see "potentially dangerous" I automatically assume "mostly harmless." So far, it has been fairly accurate. I figure, if it were really dangerous, they'd say stuff like, "HOLY SHIT!" When I see "potentially dangerous," I think butter knife.

        • Well, space is ripe for mutation. They don't have an automated system on board to send a warning about a new bacteria which turns astronauts into floating zombies. It would be nice.
          • by doccus ( 2020662 )

            Well.. space is.. like..um.. dangerous! And hey..wouldn't them pesky little critters just get irradiated into sterility? Or do these pathogens live on ionizing radiation like food?

        • Whenever I see "potentially dangerous" I automatically assume "mostly harmless." So far, it has been fairly accurate. I figure, if it were really dangerous, they'd say stuff like, "HOLY SHIT!" When I see "potentially dangerous," I think butter knife.

          Isn't it ironic that we generally feel the exact opposite when it is the government or too-big-to-fail class businesses trying to convince us that something is "generally safe"?

          If they ever got to the FUBAR level of "HOLY SHIT!", it's already too late. Nukes were launched 10 minutes ago.

        • by Daetrin ( 576516 )
          Let's start the list of "potentially dangerous" bacteria with E. Coli. Since there are humans on the station E Coli is there. Usually harmless, but every so often it does kill people.

          It's certainly _unlikely_ that anyone on board the station has any of the dangerous strains (though i have no idea how big a mutation it takes to jump from harmless to deadly,) but it is technically correct to say that anywhere there are humans there are "potentially dangerous" bacteria present.
      • You obviously don't have a clue about evolution and how it works. It works on large scale numbers and statistical scale. From a large population, you have probability to have mutants individual with adaptive capacity to a threat, they are likely to survive with a higher probability than the other indivudals and then transmit their own genes to the next generations, over a very long period of time, the unadapted individuals will becom extinct and the mutants will survive. Do we even send enough individuals i
  • fish bowl (Score:5, Interesting)

    by ganjadude ( 952775 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:18PM (#50814689) Homepage
    anyone ever seen a fish bowl? No matter how clean you get it there is always gunk buildup. The ISS is like a fish bowl, a closed system. as such of course there will be higher risks for pathogens.

    the real question is are the filters doing their jobs??
    • by ranpel ( 1255408 )
      I think the real question is "Who do we send up next?".
    • FIshbowl is an appropriate analogy.

      At times like this, I am always reminded of the Sardaukar.

      Their great strength grew from the adverse conditions from which their DNA was culled.

    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Re "the real question is are the filters doing their jobs??"
      Consider the math of 99.65% over a set or longer time. A clear path for some amount material given time gets past a filter.
      Thats the nature of filter science. If the more exotic material floating around could be broken down that would be interesting for long term missions.
      Health vs size, weight mission issues :)
      • 99.65% over a single pass or totally? Because everything that passes the filter returns to the system... and then returns to the filter eventually.

    • I've never seen an impressive fish tank filter system - the impressive fish tank maintenance systems I have seen are bio-based like septic tanks, salt water systems splash water through bio-balls that film over with stuff that eats the waste, fresh water commonly pulls water down through the gravel base and up-out bubbler stacks, that gravel gets coated in gunk eating microbes that do a very effective job.

      No HEPA style filter could ever approach that level of cleaning, you'd be replacing cartridges every fe

    • by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @11:59PM (#50814965)

      anyone ever seen a fish bowl? No matter how clean you get it there is always gunk buildup. The ISS is like a fish bowl, a closed system. as such of course there will be higher risks for pathogens.

      And the astronauts hate it when you tap on the glass.

    • by AK Marc ( 707885 )
      Then clean it like you clean a fish bowl. Put all the people in suits, a space walk, the airlock or otherwise out of the main areas. Then flood the areas with something that kills everything. Whether UV, poison, or something else is for someone with more resources to solve the problem to figure out. I was surprised that they didn't flash the filter with UV to kill things as they collect.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:23PM (#50814711)

    There's a little known, dirty story about Earth: It's filled with bacteria and fungi. A new study has found compelling evidence that microorganisms from human skin are present throughout the planet, and some of the bugs could cause serious harm to humans.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      It gets even dirtier. A recent study released by top scientists reveals that most of the material we regard as "soil" is mostly rotten shit from organisms, often still rotting. In fact, it is an important step in human's food production (mostly called "agriculture") to bring out shit from the animals, onto the living plant. As they are like humans from this shit ball called earth, plants have a shit fetish and grow faster thanks to the shit they got! Once the plants are dead the new shit gets mixed well wit

    • My refrigerator is home to potentially dangerous bacteria and fungi.

      I think what's in the vegetable crisper drawer may even be of alien origin.

      • My refrigerator is home to potentially dangerous bacteria and fungi.
        I think what's in the vegetable crisper drawer may even be of alien origin.

        Beat me to it!
        Here is the obligatory Weird Al reference [youtube.com]

        Wouldn't the thriving presence of this phantasmagorical phylum [wikipedia.org] in the ISS environment --- as it exists in every nook and cranny everywhere on Earth --- be a sign that the ISS environment was AOK, as conducive to human life as any other? A most healthy singing canary?

        Potentially Lethal Levels Of Dust Discovered In Vacuum Cleaner Bag! News at 11.

      • vegetable crisper drawer.

        I thought it was called the veggie hospice.

    • Stay away from that damn place. It sounds like a cesspool.
    • Absolutely, and many are dying. The problem in space is you don't have the luxury to let many dying because your population will become extinct very quickly, something that won't happen on Earth due to a much larger sample of population.
    • And they do. A lot. Thankfully, getting new crew members delivered to earth is a cheap and routine procedure. That's the trouble with the ISS case: replacements are expensive and sometimes delayed; and I bet that everyone else on board the station hopes that whatever the plan for storing the dead guy until the next supply rocket comes up remains purely theoretical.
    • There's a little known, dirty story about Earth: It's filled with bacteria and fungi.

      Also, "chemicals". Scary stuff.

  • by Technician ( 215283 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:28PM (#50814729)

    Unfortunately much of the ISS is protected against harmful radiation. Some of the harmful radiation is very damaging to micro organisms..

    I don't know much about the station's air filtration and purification. It may be time to introduce some UVA and UVB into the station to control the growth. This will both directly kill many as well as generating some ozone.

    As the environment is adding food, and has no effective breakdown in place (soil), outbreaks taking advantage of the food source will be a normal cycle.

    Cleaning to remove the food and colonies and population control with UV and ozone are options.

    • Yes like on Star Trek where they use the Baryon Sweep [wikia.com] to remove all the baryons built up from warp travel and as a side effect kill anything organic in the process. They shutdown and bail when the sweep is running.

    • Perhaps another possible solution, eventually, would be to provide a space on the ISS that this bacteria will naturally gathers to and attempt to colonize that could be used in some useful manner (ie, like soil). Until then, they may need to bring some UV emitters up there, possibly put them in the air purification ducts so eventually all the air gets hit. "you need an automated biosensor" quotes the article, so perhaps this will push some new tech out the door.
      • by cnettel ( 836611 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @08:10AM (#50815901)
        It's not like putting a sliced tomato on the kitchen sink in a humid climate will prevent other parts of your kitchen from attracting any mold spores around. Bacteria and prokaryotes are mostly incapable of macrosopic movement (especially in air). They are also able to rapidly expand populations. Therefore, a "colonist" doesn't choose to move to the best spot, foregoing a worse one. They will try everywhere. If they gain a foothold, that foothold is likely to just unleash further colonists into the less hospitable, but still slightly viable, habitats.
  • UV filtration? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:31PM (#50814737)

    Doesn't intense UV light kill those sorts of bacteria? Generally speaking, I understand that the effectiveness of UV filtration of air is reduced with moving air flow (since effectiveness is a function of time and UV intensity), but on a space station, the same air is going to be re-circulated many thousands of times, so you have the advantage of repeated passes.

    Would that not be effective, or was NASA simply under the impression that a HEPA filter would be adequate for the job?

    • The should have upgraded to the Vornado HEPA2 filter. [youtu.be]

      Superior German technology! However, you never know, the Vornado might cheat on emissions tests.

    • by JoeMerchant ( 803320 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:58PM (#50814821)

      And, there's plenty of intense UV light right outside, just open the windows once in awhile.

      • I presume you aren't suggesting that the space station open its windows. Or are you?
        • by Alumoi ( 1321661 )

          Of course he is. What's wrong with opening the windows? It's not like they are on a submarine or something, right?

        • Why have windows that don't open? Wouldn't you want to open the windows when it gets too hot to allow the cold of space in a little?

    • For this to work you would have to cycle all the air AT ONCE through UV passivation. Else you would be stuck in a "clean a little air, 're-infect a little air" cycle. Then you'd need to find a way to sanitize those cultures behind bulkheads, server racks, in between various forms of shielding and other various hard to reach places. Bacteria have been know to withstand some pretty amazing environments... Vacuum included.

      • Re: UV filtration? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @12:04AM (#50814981)

        I'm not so sure. Isn't the concern more about the total amount of bacteria, not the fact that it was present at all? The point isn't to turn it into a clean room - that's a fruitless exercise with humans living there. After all, humans are pretty good at dealing with residual bacteria in our environment, so long as it's in reasonably small doses. The idea is just to reduce the airborne concentration a bit down to "normal" levels, not to sterilize the station.

        • I'm not so sure. Isn't the concern more about the total amount of bacteria, not the fact that it was present at all? The point isn't to turn it into a clean room - that's a fruitless exercise with humans living there. After all, humans are pretty good at dealing with residual bacteria in our environment, so long as it's in reasonably small doses. The idea is just to reduce the airborne concentration a bit down to "normal" levels, not to sterilize the station.

          With valid concerns related to weakened immune systems for humans enduring long-term space missions, the environment may need to resemble more of a clean room than previously thought.

          We likely wouldn't be sitting around discussing who's going to clean the proverbial toilet bowl otherwise. It could also prevent future awkward roundtable discussions.

          Space exploration is dangerous enough. Let's not embarrass ourselves by killing a brave human in a very stupid way.

    • Intense UV radiation should kill the surface bacteria. The rest might just get a nice tan.
  • by PopeRatzo ( 965947 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:38PM (#50814759) Journal

    So basically, the ISS is like a Super 8 motel room, but in space and without the complimentary cable.

  • Remember Mir? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Applehu Akbar ( 2968043 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @10:52PM (#50814797)

    By the time it reached end-of-life, the first space station became famous for hosting fungus mats of an unknown species:
    http://www.straightdope.com/co... [straightdope.com]

    • Re:Remember Mir? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @11:13PM (#50814881)

      By the time it reached end-of-life, the first space station became famous for hosting fungus mats of an unknown species:
      http://www.straightdope.com/co... [straightdope.com]

      From your link: "The fungal infestation came to light in 1988, when Mir inhabitants noticed that a porthole was obscured by what one alarmist described as "an unknown film that was spreading like some horror-movie scum." Closer examination revealed green-and-black encrustations behind control panels, inside air ducts, and in other nooks and crannies throughout the spacecraft. The stuff didn't literally eat metal and plastic but did give off corrosive chemicals such as acetic acid. Acetic acid is basically vinegar, so one doesn't want to become unnecessarily alarmed. Still, the acid pitted Mir's titanium, plastic, and glass, suggesting that the spacecraft's structural integrity might be threatened if the fungus were left unchecked."

  • Any reason they couldn't add these LED sterilizers, either to the air filtration system, or to the lighting system of the station? Maybe take a room offline for 24 hours every week or so to sterilize.

    http://www.ledsmagazine.com/ug... [ledsmagazine.com]

    • I suspect that, aside from issues with any materials that aren't improved by UV exposure, it would be quite tricky to get line-of-sight from any feasible number of emitters to all the various nooks and crannies. From all the pictures I've seen, the ISS is pretty cluttered; and a lot of the wall surface is actually access panels for equipment(with lots of assorted hiding places) behind them.

      Since they already have an air filtration system, adding a UV pass to help ensure that anything the filters don't sc
  • by istartedi ( 132515 ) on Tuesday October 27, 2015 @11:38PM (#50814925) Journal

    It's a big trailer that they've been living in for years, and you can't just air the place out. This seems like the expected outcome. Consider this part of the experiment. If it's really causing a deterioration of air and/or surface cleanliness vs. Earth-bound standards, fix it. Whatever solution you come up with might have applications for terrestrial hospitals, or other things we haven't thought of yet.

  • by BoberFett ( 127537 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @12:10AM (#50815001)

    Can we retire the word "problematic" already? Anytime someone uses it, I instinctively tune out anything said afterward.

  • We stick people in it. People are full of bacteria. Some of that bacteria can be bad for you if it ends up in the wrong place. At which point did any of this become surprising? I kinda want to slap the researchers on the back of the head...

  • They should have pre-treated the surfaces where this stuff can grow with something like Biocote or some other silver or copper infused coating. These coatings work quite well at killing bacteria without being harmful to humans.

  • by engineerErrant ( 759650 ) on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @01:25AM (#50815145)

    "The Actinobacteria phylum includes..." OMG I'm scared! Except that biology classification is a bit over-broad...

    Let's review what badasses *our* phylum includes:

    - The honey badger.
    - The Kodiak bear.
    - The goddamned T-Rex.
    - that Japanese guy who killed bulls with nothing but karate

    In a phylum-off, I'm betting on Team Chordata.

  • by Rinikusu ( 28164 )

    I know it can't reach into the crevices and what not, but would a UV "wand" be effective in eliminating a lot of surface dwelling bacteria? They could make a little roomba on a tether with a UV spot light that slowly goes around exposing surfaces to strong UV.... We have UV filters in aquariums that seem to do a decent job killing pathogens...

  • All they need to do is section off areas of the station and expose them to ozone on a rotating basis. Come on NASA why is this a hard problem for you?
  • If astronauts' immune systems suffer ill effects due to microgravity, I wonder: Are they more at risk of infection due to these bacteria while in the space station, or after they are exposed to the Earth environment again just after they get back home?

  • by Qbertino ( 265505 ) <moiraNO@SPAMmodparlor.com> on Wednesday October 28, 2015 @06:01AM (#50815575)

    The same happed to Mir.
    "There are places you wouldn't want to stick a hand in." Kosmonauts were quoted.

    The fascinating thing is that fungi are actually quite resillient and also can survice in a vacuum.
    I'd guess that the environment in a space station favours fungi more than anything else.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Yeast is a fungus.
      Yeast is used to make alcohol out of sugar on earth.
      Recent news of a comet spewing sugar and alcohol into space suggests that yeast may already live among the stars.

      Wonder if there are any unique varieties of yeast aboard the space station, and what they make beer taste like.

  • Open it to the vacuum! Scrub it with Listerine! Call Sigourney Weaver! We wouldn't want our astronauts getting acne. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org] Or, the horror!, erythrasma--which is how most people might encounter a Corynebacterium species.
  • It seems to me like the best possible way to clean a space station would be to use a steam vapor cleaner. The environmental systems have to already be designed to deal with water vapor in the air, and the steam vapor cleaner uses no chemicals other than water, which would be recycled. A good steam vapor cleaner doesn't get things very wet... the steam is very hot.

    I wonder whether they can afford the power to make steam... I don't know how much spare power they have from the solar power system. Maybe future

  • Maybe it's time to free up a spot and send a maid to clean things.

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