The berry-shaped bacteria Tersicoccus phoenicis is so different from any other known bacteria, they said, it has been classified as not only a new species, but also a new genus, the next level of classifying the diversity of life.
"We find a lot of bugs in clean rooms because we are looking so hard to find them there," said microbiologist Parag Vaishampayan of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "The same bug might be in the soil outside the clean room but we wouldn't necessarily identify it there because it would be hidden by the overwhelming numbers of other bugs."
Microbiologists often survey bacteria and other microbes in spacecraft clean rooms to know which might hitch a ride into space. If extraterrestrial life is ever found, it would be readily checked against the census of a few hundred types of microbes detected in spacecraft clean rooms, to eliminate an earthly origin.
The new microbe has been found in facilities about 2,500 miles apart, in a NASA facility at Kennedy Space Center and a European Space Agency facility in Kourou, French Guiana.
Efforts to keep rooms where spacecraft are assembled extremely clean knock total microbe numbers way down, but they can also inadvertently select for microbes that withstand stresses such as drying, chemical cleaning, ultraviolet treatments and lack of nutrients, the researchers said.
"We want to have a better understanding of these bugs, because the capabilities that adapt them for surviving in clean rooms might also let them survive on a spacecraft," Vaishampayan said. "This particular bug survives with almost no nutrients."