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NASA diligently tracks microbes inside the International Space Station

"We should be investigating new and different ways of monitoring spacecraft for microorganisms," said NASA scientist Mark Ott.

By
Brooks Hays
A collection of microbial samples swabbed on the International Space Station ready to be analyzed. Photo by NASA
A collection of microbial samples swabbed on the International Space Station ready to be analyzed. Photo by NASA

June 28 (UPI) -- For NASA and its astronauts, keeping tabs on microorganisms living inside the International Space Station is essential.

Traditionally, astronauts have helped NASA scientists track microbes for health and safety reasons. But more recently, astronauts and scientists are analyzing space-based microbes for a variety of scientific reasons.

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Since 2013, researchers have been monitoring how space-travel impacts the makeup of microbial communities, or the microbiome, inside astronauts' digestive systems. A growing body of research has highlighted the important role the gastrointestinal microbiome plays in human health.

Researchers are also generally curious about the effects of microgravity on different bacterial strains.

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But health and safety remains the number one priority for NASA.

"We should be investigating new and different ways of monitoring spacecraft for microorganisms," Mark Ott, a microbiologist at Johnson Space Center, said in a news release this week. "But we must be careful when we interpret the results. NASA has and continues to closely monitor the International Space Station to ensure it provides a safe and healthy environment for our astronauts."

The space station is thoroughly cleaned on a regular basis, and everything arriving at the space station has been disinfected. Astronauts enter quarantine for several days prior to their departure from Earth.

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Still, microorganisms grow inside ISS. Most microbes are harmless, however, and astronauts regularly sample and sequence microbes to make sure nothing dangerous is growing. Astronauts also regularly test their drinking water.

Only rarely do astronauts identify a potentially harmful bacteria strain. And often, what appears to be dangerous at first, is found to be a harmless relative upon closer examination.

"It may be something typically found in a bathroom, for example, but that you wouldn't want in an office space," Ott said.

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While astronauts continue to ensure their environs are safe and clean, researchers will continue to study how microbial communities colonize and adapt to foreign environs.

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