Microbes are everywhere—on and around us. On the International Space Station (ISS), there’s a unique set of these little organisms that have traveled to space (on crew and cargo) and taken up residence on the platform.
Humans have been living and working onboard the ISS for almost 20 years, so it may be alarming to think of these space microbes and the risks they might pose to our astronauts and the critical research performed on the orbiting laboratory. However, recent findings have confirmed that the little guys do not in fact become dangerous superbugs.
Some space microbes may have similarities to extremophiles on Earth—the microbes that live in particularly inhospitable places like hot springs and within toxic waste disposal sites—but they are no more resistant to environmental extremes or (importantly) to antibiotics than the microbes we encounter here on Earth. Also similar to Earth microbes, many of the organisms onboard the ISS are actually important for human health!
Today, many of the 55 types of bacteria, bacteriophages, fungi, protozoa, and viruses that make up the ISS microbiome, or microbial community, can be studied in real time on the ISS using gene sequencing technologies. This helps the crew (and the dedicated medical professions who monitor crew health from the ground) to keep tabs on the evolving microbiome and ensure that space microbes continue to pose no greater risk than Earth-based microbes.
These healthy microbes, a vital part of the human microbiome, are not only stowaways but also visit the space station within experiments sponsored by the ISS U.S. National Laboratory. Microbiome research in microgravity has the potential to reveal important aspects of how microbes behave and interact with each other and the human body—which could be beneficial in the understanding of human disease on Earth.
Many microbes help maintain overall human health, make it easier to digest nutrients—and even directly provide essential vitamins and nutrients, and play a role in the “immunome” by protecting humans from dangerous microbes.
Despite not becoming superbugs while in space, microbes do sometimes behave differently in microgravity, providing research results quite different to those in ground experiments. ISS National Lab microbiome research has the potential to influence various aspects of human health, including the future of antibiotic resistance and disease treatment. Read more in Upward’s Expanding Horizons For Microbiome Research on the ISS.