Superbug Strain Discovered in ISS Raises Concerns for Astronaut Health

Feature and Cover Superbug Strain Discovered in ISS Raises Concerns for Astronaut Health

NASA’s Indian-origin astronaut Sunita Williams and her fellow crew members aboard the International Space Station (ISS) are facing a new concern: the discovery of a superbug within the station’s confines.

Scientists have identified a multi-drug resistant bacterium named ‘Enterobacter bugandensis,’ which has flourished in the enclosed environment of the ISS. This strain of bacteria, often referred to as a ‘superbug,’ poses a threat as it infects the respiratory system.

Contrary to expectations of extraterrestrial life, these “spacebugs” are essentially hitchhikers that accompanied astronauts to the ISS. This revelation presents a new challenge for astronauts like Ms. Williams and Astronaut Barry Eugene “Butch” Wilmore, who arrived at the ISS aboard the Boeing Starliner spacecraft on June 6, 2024, to conduct tests on the new spacecraft.

While debris and micrometeorites have traditionally been the primary concerns at the ISS, the evolution of bugs over the 24 years of continuous habitation is now a significant worry.

NASA recently reported on their study of strains of E. bugandensis isolated from the ISS, noting that 13 strains of this bacterium were found, all displaying multi-drug resistance. These ISS-isolated strains exhibited genetic and functional changes under stress, distinguishing them from their Earth counterparts. Moreover, they were able to persist within the ISS environment and coexist with other microorganisms, potentially aiding their survival.

Leading the research is Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who incidentally pursued Marine Microbiology at Annamalai University in Chennai before joining NASA. Dr. Venkateswaran collaborated with Professor Karthik Raman from the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, along with other researchers, to delve into the implications of these findings. Their work, published in the journal Microbiome, highlights the unique health challenges astronauts face in altered immune conditions during space missions, underscoring the importance of understanding the microbial landscape aboard the ISS.

Dr. Venkateswaran emphasizes the significance of their research, stating that it reveals how benign microorganisms aid the survival of opportunistic pathogens like E. bugandensis in the harsh conditions of space. This knowledge, he suggests, could inform strategies to counteract such pathogens and safeguard astronaut health.

NASA stresses the uniqueness of closed human-built environments like the ISS, which subject microorganisms to extreme conditions such as microgravity, radiation, and elevated carbon dioxide levels. Exploring microbial dynamics in these environments, the research aims to develop effective preventative measures for astronaut health.

Professor Raman reflects on the resilience of microbes in challenging environments, highlighting the ongoing mysteries surrounding their growth.

The discovery of a superbug within the ISS presents a new frontier of concern for NASA and its astronauts, underscoring the need for continued research and vigilance in maintainingthe health and safety of space travelers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

More Related Stories