The International Space Station Is Teeming With Germs, But That's A Good Thing

By Vincent Lanaria | Dec 07, 2017 08:24 AM EST
The International Space station is filled with germs, but it's possibly a good sign of a healthy spacecraft. Still, it's important to identify these microbes, especially now that humanity has a renewed interest in further space exploration. (Photo : NASA | Getty Images)

More than 12,500 species of microbes have inhabited the Internal Space Station.

That may sound terrible at first since it's about germs in space, after all, not to mention that ISS astronauts are making pizza up there. However, it's in fact a sign of a healthy environment.

ISS Is Filled With Germs

According to the study, there are 12,554 microbial species at the minimum on board the ISS, and just from the surfaces inside the satellite, at least 1,000 and possibly over 4,000 species reside.

The forward lab mic, the lab robotic workstation joystick, the aft lab vent, and the starboard sleep quarters nomex — these are among the 15 sites that the astronauts acquired the samples from.

Interestingly, the majority of these areas are analogous to items on Earth, such as the forward lab mic being comparable to a cell phone, the starboard sleep quarters nomex to a pillow, and so on.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's far from it too.

"Diversity is generally associated with a healthy ecosystem," David Coil, project scientist of the University of California at Davis and coauthor of the paper, said, adding that the discovery is "assuring" and that it's potentially an indication of a healthy spacecraft.

The Importance Of Identifying These Microbes

The researchers say that it's of "critical importance to understand the microbial ecology of the built environments" for space travel, especially at a time when humans are aiming to explore the solar system even further.

As such, UC Davis in collaboration with other groups such as Science Cheerleader, which is composed of professional cheerleaders who are also scientists, started Project MERCCURI. The goal was simple: Collect samples from sports stadiums and send them to the ISS to verify whether or not the microbes will thrive.

Now the UC Davis scientists then made a request for the ISS astronauts to send back samples from the space station in return.

Coil said that the most common questions the team gets can be summed up to two: "Is it gross?" and "Will you see microbes from space?"

"As to the first, we are completely surrounded by mostly harmless microbes on Earth, and we see a broadly similar microbial community on the ISS. So it is probably no more or less gross than your living room," Coil said (PDF). "Since the ISS is completely enclosed, the microbes inside the station come from the people on the ISS and the supplies sent to them," he continued, answering the second question.

This study is published in the journal PeerJ.

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