NASA, Bigelow Laboratory Study Microbes on Spacecrafts


Humans aren't the only form of life that calls the International Space Station home. Previous studies have found that the astronauts share the station with a surprising number of stowaway bacteria. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is now teaming up with Bigelow Laboratory's Single Cell Genomics Center (SCGC) to get further acquainted with the community of microbes that travel with us into space.

The International Space Station is a unique environment subject to space radiation, microgravity, and the constant presence of bacteria-carrying humans. By studying the community of microbes – or the microbiome – on the station, scientists can better evaluate health risks, identify potential maintenance issues, and prevent contamination of invaluable scientific samples.

SCGC is the first facility of its kind and uses cutting-edge techniques pioneered at the lab to individually read the genomic blueprints of the most fundamental units of life – cells.

"It is now well established that more than 99 percent of microorganisms cannot be detected using classical microbiology techniques that rely on laboratory cultivation," said Ramunas Stepanauskas, senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory and Director of SCGC. "Our unique technology and infrastructure will provide NASA with a new look at the microbiome of the International Space Station and other spacecraft used to collect scientific samples."

The SCGC will specifically work to understand the microbes that might cling to the rover NASA will send to gather rock and soil samples on the Mars 2020 mission. The rover will be exploring an area scientists believe may have once harbored microbial life, and they are searching for evidence.

"NASA needs to be certain that microbes in its samples are indeed from Mars," said Stepanauskas. "We hope to provide insight into the microbial hitchhikers from Earth that might make it to the planet aboard its spacecraft."