IIT Madras and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Researchers Study Microbial Interactions taking place in the International Space Station to make Space Travel Safer

Press Release


Indian Institute of Technology Madras (IIT Madras) and NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory researchers have studied the interactions between microbes in the International Space Station (ISS). The study will help devise strategies for the disinfection of space stations to minimise any potential impact of microbes on the health of astronauts.

Crews, during spaceflight, may have altered immunity and limited access to terrestrial medical facilities. Therefore, studying the microbes inhabiting the space station becomes important to understand the risks associated with short-term and long-term space travel on the health of astronauts.

The present study was motivated by the earlier observations of the dominance of Klebsiella pneumoniae on the surfaces of the ISS. This pathogen has been known to cause pneumonia and other nosocomial infections. The researchers were broadly interested in understanding how this bacteria affects the growth of other microbes in the vicinity and the possible implications it could have.

The researchers analysed the microbial sample data taken across three space flights at seven locations on the ISS. The study found that Klebsiella pneumoniae, a major microbe that resides on the ISS, is beneficial to various other microbes also present on the ISS, especially the bacteria from the Pantoeagenus.

However, it was found that its presence was hampering the growth of Aspergillus fungus. This computational observation was further tested through laboratory experiments, and it was found that the presence of K. pneumoniae was indeed detrimental to the growth of the Aspergillus fungus.

Dr Karthik Raman, Associate Professor at the Bhupat & Jyoti Mehta School of Biosciences and a core member of the Robert Bosch Centre for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (RBCDSAI), IIT Madras, collaborated with Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran, Senior Research Scientist at JPL.

The work has been peer-reviewed and published in the esteemed international journal Microbiome.

Highlighting the need for such research, Dr Karthik Raman, IIT Madras, said, “The microbiome of the built environment has a huge impact on human health. Controlled environments such as the ISS harbour a variety of organisms, and unravelling their interactions is key to a better appreciation of the factors that shape the microbiome even in extreme conditions.”

This bacterial family includes members like E. coli, Salmonella, etc., which are also present in the human gut. This bacterial family was found to be the most beneficial among the other microbes present on the ISS.

Highlighting the importance of this study, Nitin Singh, JPL, said,“This study draws on a decade’s worth of pioneering effort at JPL to find a direct link between the predictions we can make based on the genetic information from microbes, and what the organisms do out in the wild. An agreement between our predictions and the microbe characteristics we see in the lab makes this study a strong candidate for future clinical applications in space travel.”

Kasthuri Venkateswaran, Senior Research Scientist, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), said, “One of the ways the microbes are introduced in the sealed and closed space station is through crew members. However, the environment at the space station is different from that on Earth. The interaction between the microbes is also affected by these adverse environmental conditions in space, necessitating such studies. More knowledge on the microbes in space can help devise appropriate safety measures for long-term space travel.”

The microbial strains found in this study pose no threat to the space station astronauts, and this study provides evidence on why it's important to monitor the microbiome of the ISS. Keeping an eye on what microbes are on the ISS and learning how they adapt in microgravity continues to help us protect astronaut health.

Reference: https://microbiomejournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40168-022-01279-y