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  • Space experts allayed the world’s fears, assuring that- albeit groundbreaking for bacteriologists- the microbes are completely harmless.

    Space experts allayed the world’s fears, assuring that- albeit groundbreaking for bacteriologists- the microbes are completely harmless. | Photo: NASA

Published 8 January 2019

Five strains were discovered on the ISS’s exterior, genetically different from their earthly counterparts.

Bacteria rotating earth’s thermosphere atop the International Space Station (ISS) are mutating to adapt to the harsh conditions of outer space, Northwestern University scientists said in a study Tuesday.

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Five strains were discovered on the ISS’s exterior, drug-resistant and genetically different from their earthly counterparts.

Science fiction aficionados were quick to suggest the microbe could be morphing into deadly space bugs. However, space experts allayed the world’s fears, assuring that- albeit groundbreaking for bacteriologists- the microbes are completely harmless.

"There has been a lot of speculation about radiation, microgravity and the lack of ventilation and how that might affect living organisms, including bacteria," said Lead Researcher Erica Hartmann.

"These are stressful, harsh conditions. Does the environment select for superbugs because they have an advantage? The answer appears to be 'no,'" she said.

Published Tuesday in the mSystems science journal, the discovery was a boon for future space explorers who will be exposed to thousands of untested and unknown microbes, thousands of miles from civilization. Though NASA has meticulously strategized the pre-launch quarantine procedures to prevent the spread of unwanted diseases in space, experts still fear an unplanned outbreak during space missions.

"People will be in little capsules where they cannot 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."

"Everywhere you go, you bring your microbes with you," Hartmann said. "Astronauts are exceedingly healthy people. But as we talk about expanding space flight to tourists who do not necessarily meet astronaut criteria, we don't know what will happen. We can't say that if you put someone with an infection into a closed bubble in space that it won't transfer to other people. It's like when someone coughs on an airplane, and everyone gets sick."

Study author, Ryan Blaustein said, “Based on genomic analysis, it looks like bacteria are adapting to live -- not evolving to cause disease. We didn't see anything special about antibiotic resistance or virulence in the space station's bacteria."

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