Microbes in Space: Their Survival and Importance  

Did you know microbes travel with you? You can easily carry microbes to any sterile environment, including space. There might be the presence of microbes in space stations and spacecraft during assembly or introduced after the arrival of new crews or payloads. 

Astro microbiology or exo microbiology is the study of microbial life in space or under conditions similar to space. To date, microbes have been studied in controlled ground-based simulations or in the international space station (ISS). 

The highly adaptable nature of microbes helps them to survive in outer space. The research on the microbes in outer space will help to understand the possibilities of life in the area. So, studying microbes in space and the effects space has on microbial colonies is essential. 

Survival of Microbes in Space

Although microbes get introduced to the space environment, the real question is, “Can microbes survive the extreme space conditions?” The answer to that depends on how adaptable the strain of microorganisms is. There has been evidence of microbial survival on spacecraft as per NASA; even after rigorous cleaning and sterilization protocols, microbial contamination has been detected.  

Some microorganisms, called extremophiles, can withstand different harsh environments. Some of the factors that help some organisms to survive the environment of space are as follows:

  1. Tolerate as well as thrive in high temperatures: Thermophiles prefer and thrive in environments with extreme temperatures like hot springs or deep sea hydrothermal vents. These are the potential candidates for surviving extreme heat experiences during the launch and re-entry to space. 
  2. The capacity to survive in radiation: Space is surrounded by different types of radiation, including solar and cosmic radiation. These radiations can damage DNA and other cellular components. Deinococcus radiodurans possess extraordinary resistance to radiation and can withstand exposure to high radiation levels. Due to this property, the bacteria become the perfect study group for understanding the effects of radiation on living organisms. 
  3. Formation of spores: The spores formed by some microbes are resistant structures that protect the organism from harsh conditions. Bacteria, like Bacillus subtilis, have survived simulated space conditions like exposure to vacuum, extreme temperatures, and radiation. These results show that spore-forming microbes can survive the rigors of space travel.  

However, some factors like microgravity, lack of essential nutrients, and long-term exposure to vacuum can be the biggest hurdles to the survival of microorganisms in actual conditions of outer space. Although the survival of microbes in space is challenging, some have demonstrated the ability to survive and thrive in the factors. So, further research and exploration are necessary for deepening the understanding of microbial survival in space and its use in astrobiology and human space exploration. 

Importance of Microbes in Space

The research on microbes in space plays an essential role in human space exploration and astrobiology. Microbes are primitive organisms that can provide insights into fundamental aspects of life and are instrumental in understanding the universe. 

Studying microbes in space is essential for understanding the origins of life, human health in space, planetary protection, biotechnological applications, exploring extraterrestrial life, and developing advanced space exploration technology. 

  1. Understanding the origins of life: Microbes are the earliest forms of life on Earth. These microbes help obtain valuable insights into the origins and evolution of life in the universe. These studies then help understand the conditions necessary for life to emerge and thrive in another environment, including other planets and the moon. 
  2. Exploring extraterrestrial life: Microbes also known as primitive organisms that offer valuable models for studying the potential for life beyond Earth. Studying the survival mechanisms of microbes in space help determine the existing microbial life or signs of past microbial life. This study helps us understand the prevalence of life in the universe. 
  3. Developing advanced space exploration technology: Enzymes produced by extremophiles can help build robust materials like radiation-resistant coatings or thermal-stable enzymes for molecular analysis in space. This study of the resilience and adaptability of microbes can help develop innovative technologies, enabling safer and more efficient space missions. 
  4. Planetary protection: Space exploration can introduce pathogenic and destructive microbes in other celestial bodies with terrestrial microorganisms. Ensuring that the discovery of life on other planets and moons is native and not contaminated by Earth. Scientists studying microbes’ survival and dispersal mechanisms in space help form protocols and guidelines for protecting planetary bodies.  
  5. Human health in space: Astronauts and scientists on space missions are potentially at risk due to changes in diet and suppressed immune systems. Developing proper sterilization and sanitation protocol helps build life support systems in ISS and spacecraft. So, it is necessary to understand the interaction between microbes and the space environment and how these affect an astronaut’s health after long-term space travel. 

Effect of Space in Microbial Colony

Some effects of space on microbial colonies are alteration in growth patterns, genetic and phenotypic changes, enhanced survival, biofilm production, , and increased antibiotic resistivity. 

  1. Enhanced survival: Some microbes have been can survive extreme space conditions. The thermophiles, radiation-resistant, and spore-former can withstand the high levels of extreme conditions of other microbes. These can resist harsh conditions and grow in the space environment.   
  2. Altered growth patterns: Microgravity in space has altered the growth patterns of microbial colonies. The microbial cells form compact aggregates or clumps instead of spreading out in a flat, two-dimensional manner which leads to changes in the overall structure and organization of the colony. 
  3. Biofilm production: The biofilm is a complex community of microbes surrounded by a self-produced matrix. Biofilm production can alter in space due to surface interactions and reduced hydrodynamic shear forces. The changes in their properties and behaviors may be seen compared to their terrestrial counterparts.   
  4. Increased antibiotic resistivity: Different studies indicate that microbial colonies may increase antibiotic resistance when exposed to space conditions. As discussed earlier, the genetic makeup of microbes changes, including the acquisition of antibiotic-resistance genes. This change can prove a challenge for controlling infections during space missions.  
  5. Genetic and phenotypic changes: Space conditions like radiation can change microbial colonies’ phenotype and genetic makeup. This change can lead to mutations and alterations in gene expression and the emergence of new traits. These changes can assist in the survival and adaptation of microbes in space and influence their behavior and interactions inside the colony. 
  6. Altered metabolic pathway: Due to the unavailability of nutrients, microbes may vary their metabolic activity. For example, microgravity can adversely affect nutrient uptake and utilization in microbial colonies, so they modify with the changes and use alternative energy sources. These adaptations lead to modification in their growth and behavior.  

References and Further Reading

Ashma Shrestha

Hello, I am Ashma Shrestha. I had recently completed my Masters degree in Medical Microbiology. Passionate about writing and blogging. Key interest in virology and molecular biology.

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