Genetic evidence has shown that despite its seemingly harsh conditions, bacteria on the International Space Station (ISS) are adapting to survive, and not turning into unsafe, antibiotic-resistant superbugs, researchers said. The researchers believe the bacteria on the orbiting platform altered itself to cope with living in space.
The study was published January 8 in the journal mSystems. While the researchers found that the ISS bacteria did contain different genes than their Earth-based counterparts, those genes did not make the bacteria more detrimental to human health.
Despite the terrifying plot lines of many a sci-fi film, there's no need to worry that germs in space might transform into ferocious, malevolent microbes that threaten the human race.
The lead author of the study and Assistant Professor at the University, Erica Hartmann, stated that the impact of radiation, lack of ventilation and microgravity on living organisms had been an area under speculation for a long time. They went on to explain that these microbes were simply adjusting to the environment and the stressful conditions.
To adapt to living on surfaces, the bacteria containing advantageous genes are selected for or they mutate. Hartmann asked. "The answer appears to be 'no'".
Given that plans to send astronauts to Mars are becoming more realistic and serious, scientists have become especially interested in learning about the behavior of microbes in enclosed areas.
"People will be in little capsules where they can not open windows, go outside or circulate the air for long periods of time", said Hartmann.
"'We're genuinely concerned about how this could affect microbes".
Scientists have found thousands of microbes on the ISS, most of which traveled to space with astronauts or cargo transported to the space station.
On Earth, the researchers said, bacteria routinely fall away from the human bodies they prefer to inhabit and undergo changes to adapt to nonliving surfaces. "Your skin is warm and has certain oils and organic chemicals that bacteria really like. When you shed those bacteria, they find themselves living in a very different environment", Dr. Hartmann said. But on the cold surface of a building or, in this instance, a space station, the organisms have to work a little harder to survive.
It seems, however, that while the bacteria did change themselves to adapt to space, those changes didn't produce any abnormalities that would make them produce diseases that would be more infectious or hard to treat. The mutations observed in the ISS bacteria facilitated their survival by helping the bacteria eat, grow and function in a harsh environment.