"Wherever man boldly goes his microbial fauna is sure to follow," said Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist at University College London. The Russian space station Mir was launched in 1986 and microbial studies investigated the diversity of bacteria living alongside the astronauts.
In 1998, free-floating blobs of water found during a NASA mission to the station were analyzed and discovered to contain microbes including faecal bacteria like E. coli, plague bacterium-related species of Yersinia, and even what was suspected to be Legionella, as well as fungi, amoebae and protozoa.
"Preventing the spread of microbial life between worlds of the solar system has been a top priority for decades now," said Lewis. "This effort is known as planetary protection." Today's International Space Station (ISS) is much cleaner than Mir was 20 years ago, thanks to HEPA filters, weekly cleaning and biweekly disinfecting regimes. But inevitably, the ISS is still far from being bug-free; recent sampling revealed the bacterium Staphylococcus epidermidis surviving in different areas.
But it's not just planets we need to protect - astronauts are at increased risk of infection in space. Respiratory infections are common among astronauts and diseases occur in a quarter of space shuttle flights. "Prolonged exposure to cosmic radiation and microgravity is believed to have a negative effect on the immune system, and disease transmission is enhanced within the closed environment of recycled air and water," said Lewis Dartnell. Microbes also pose an increased risk of allergies, toxic air and water supply and even biodegradation of critical spacecraft components.
This week, the Phoenix lander touched down on Mars, hoping to take the first ever direct measurements of Martian water and organic molecules. "To guarantee the cleanliness of the robotic arm, it was enclosed in a biobarrier bag - effectively an interplanetary condom," said Lewis. But this will not be a feasible control measure for humans. "Humans and spaceships are inherently dirty and once we arrive to plant flags in the rusty soil our microbial entourage will begin leaking out onto Mars." What's more, microbes have an uncanny ability to survive as spores, resistant to heat, cold and radiation. "Once humans have visited Mars, we may never be certain that any biological discoveries weren't simply signs of our own dirty sleeves," said Lewis Dartnell.
In fact, we might actually need to take microbes on a manned mission to Mars. "For longer missions, it will not be possible to take sufficient supplies from Earth," said Lewis. "Scientists are developing ingenious life support systems relying on plants and micro-organisms to provide food, waste recycling and water purification." Of course, in this case, an outbreak of harmful microbes could crash life support systems as well as affecting the health of the crew, endangering the whole mission. "For better or worse, space bugs are here to stay."
Multi-institutional collaboration uncovers how molecular machines assemble
02.12.2016 | Salk Institute
Fertilized egg cells trigger and monitor loss of sperm’s epigenetic memory
02.12.2016 | IMBA - Institut für Molekulare Biotechnologie der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften GmbH
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water
In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...
The efficiency of power electronic systems is not solely dependent on electrical efficiency but also on weight, for example, in mobile systems. When the weight of relevant components and devices in airplanes, for instance, is reduced, fuel savings can be achieved and correspondingly greenhouse gas emissions decreased. New materials and components based on gallium nitride (GaN) can help to reduce weight and increase the efficiency. With these new materials, power electronic switches can be operated at higher switching frequency, resulting in higher power density and lower material costs.
Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE together with partners have investigated how these materials can be used to make power...
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