Microbiology IN SPACE: science fiction or reality?

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (aka NASA) recently caught my attention with some microbiology research being performed aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

Wait, are there microbes in space?!

The real question should be: can microbes even survive in space?

The answer is yes.

On our planet, we have found microbes in the most extreme environments present on our planet including the hot springs of Yellowstone, arsenic-filled ponds and the polar ice caps. These microbes are referred to as ‘extremophiles’ based on their extreme capabilities. 

The bright colors you see are produced by extremophiles at Grand Prismatic Spring, Yellowstone National Park. Photo credit: Jim Peaco, National Park Service.

The bright colors you see are produced by extremophiles at Grand Prismatic SpringYellowstone National Park. Photo credit: Jim Peaco, National Park Service.

The existence of extremophiles also promoted a hypothesis called Panspermia. To summarize, the hypothesis states that microbial life may be transportable to other planets through space via asteroids. If you imagine some extremophiles being caught in some rock that gets jettisoned into space, the prospect they may survive and reproduce on a new planet with the right conditions seems plausible.

Assuming there are planets harboring microbial life out there besides ours, foreign microbes could land on our planet!

Second, let’s talk about the relatively young field of astrovirology.

As the name implies, this field is about the study of viruses in space. Viruses are not technically microbes but depend and pray on microbes and other biological life to reproduce. However, a key point here is that viruses DO NOT require cells to survive.

Viruses are on the fringe of what we consider to be ‘alive’ because they simply consist of DNA with a protein envelope. This simplicity allows viruses themselves to be very resilient, even more so than microbes with much more delicate cellular machinery.

Are dangerous microbes potentially residing in asteroids or stowing away on spacecraft? Photo credit - Kenny Flynn.

Are dangerous microbes potentially residing in asteroids or stowing away on spacecraft? Photo credit - Kenny Flynn.

Should we be worried about alien microbes?

While alien microbes provide fertile ground for science fiction, we probably have nothing to worry about.

For example, viruses have host-specificity where they must recognize specific structures of certain types of cells to activate the infection process; alien viruses would likely find our biology incompatible.

Wait, is the research on the ISS about alien microbes?

Nope, not at all. In fact, the research that sparked this post is about growing microbial structures known as biofilms under zero gravity and observing how they behave.

Biofilms are essentially communities or clusters of microbes surrounded in slime that protects them from the environment. Since these environmental hardships include antibiotics and our immune system, biofilms represent a common threat and hurdle we must overcome in the medical field.

 

Figure 4 from Kim et al., 2013 published in PLOS One highlighting the unique structure biofilms take during spaceflight. Notice the unusal column and canopy streucture compared to the earthly mushroom shape.

Figure 4 from Kim et al., 2013 published in PLOS One highlighting the unique structure biofilms take during spaceflight. Notice the unusal column and canopy streucture compared to the earthly mushroom shape.

How is studying biofilms in space helpful for biofilms on earth?

Said a different way, this same type of question can be observed in almost any field of research: ‘Why should we be spending money on this topic?’ Certainly, a good question.

Directly related to space travel, combating biofilms is crucial for keeping your space crew healthy especially when our immune systems misbehave in space (Crucian et al., 2008) while infectious microbes do better (reviewed in Horneck et al., PlOS ONE). This recent research aboard the ISS demonstrates that biofilms formed under zero gravity have a unique structure not observed on earth and provides methods to study this process.

More importantly, microbes do not seem to have any trouble at all growing aboard the ISS and could easily adapt and cause mayhem.

It is also possible that this biofilm research in space may lead to an unexpected solution or insight about biofilms on earth.

To illustrate this point, I immediately think of a clip summarizing a lecture given by a Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) engineer, Soichi Noguchi, shown below.

 

A new perspective may provide insight for solution to a problem not previously considered.

In summary, I would be happy to take FTDM into space and serve up a tasty treat. NASA, if you need a microbial ecologist, let me know.

Stay hungry!