Bacteria are ubiquitous and some of them are real survival specialists – a property, which is particularly challenging for space missions. The spacecraft that are sent on their long journey into space should be as clean as possible and considerably reduced in microbial burden, since the risk of biological contamination of other planets is high.
Sample taking ESA's Herschel space observatory
Such a contamination could affect the detection of extraterrestrial life or make it even impossible. For this reason, spacecraft are assembled in so-called "clean rooms" under the most stringent controls for bio-contamination. Nevertheless, microorganisms exist that can deal with the prevailing extreme conditions such as dryness, lack of nutrients or presence of disinfectants. Space agencies have defined standards by which to measure the bioburden and diversity of microbial species in the clean rooms and on the spacecraft. The DSMZ now offers, in cooperation with the European Space Agency (ESA), the first public collection of extremotolerant bacterial strains adapted to the harsh conditions within the clean rooms.This collection is an important resource for research institutes and industry to investigate adaptive mechanisms of bacteria (for instance, resistance to heat, UV radiation, ionizing radiation, desiccation, disinfectants). The journal "Astrobiology" reports about this culture collection in its current issue.
„A clean room is a particularly extreme habitat for microbial survivalists", explains Rüdiger Pukall. "The nutrient-poor environment, controlled moisture and temperature, air filtering and frequent decontamination of surfaces create a special habitat for spore-forming, autotrophic, multi-resistant, facultatively or obligate anaerobic bacteria."
Even taking a sample of the bacteria in the clean rooms is a special challenge for the researchers. "In order not to introduce any foreign microorganisms or particles, the microbiologists have to wear protective suits and face masks ", reports Rüdiger Pukall. “Here the samples were taken with special swabs and wipes, according to defined standard procedures from ESA. The samples were subsequently analysed at the University Regensburg and the DLR in Köln and the bacteria were isolated using diverse cultivation strategies."Then Dr. Rüdiger Pukall's team at DSMZ in Braunschweig identified the bacterial strains by 16S rRNA gene sequence analysis. For long term storage, the bacteria were freeze-dried and stored in liquid nitrogen. Bacteria that could not be cultivated were also identified via sequencing after extraction of the total genomic DNA from the samples.
Susanne Thiele | Leibniz-Institut DSMZ
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