Microbes From Earth Could Put Mars Colonies in Serious Danger

Wednesday, 13 December 2017 - 10:14AM
Astrobiology
Space
Mars
Yes
Wednesday, 13 December 2017 - 10:14AM
Microbes From Earth Could Put Mars Colonies in Serious Danger
< >
Image credit: Wikimedia Creative Commons
Between rocket malfunctions, loss of air pressure, space madness, xenomorph-infected crewmates, and running out of candy, a thousand and one things could go wrong for astronauts on their way to Mars.

One thing most people don't take into account, however, is microbes.

Scientists have been concerned for a while about Earth bacteria ending up on probes searching for extraterrestrial life on other planets, but their concern was that we could infect other biomes with invasive species that might murder the very space bacteria we're trying to find.

Now the concern is that there may not be enough bacteria inside our spaceships to keep the astronauts alive and healthy.

Having too few microbes and not enough diversity among them means that the remaining bacteria will begin to breed and fight among themselves, potentially creating more virulent and dangerous strains that are more effective at infecting hosts, Motherboard reports.

However, a new study in the scientific journal PeerJ studied 15 surfaces aboard the International Space Station, including keyboards, air vents, and buttons, and found that the microbes present across all 15 was actually quite diverse:

Opening quote
"We hypothesized that there might be a relatively low microbial diversity on the ISS," the paper reads. "We note that Shannon diversity (which takes into account both the number of species present, and how evenly our sequences are distributed throughout those species) is actually relatively high on the ISS.
Closing quote
"

The ISS actually has a minimum standard for microbe diversity about the ISS, which is partly accomplished by a policy that cycles new astronauts in regularly—few people are aboard the ISS for more than several months, meaning that new members bring aboard new microbes.

However, longer-term trips to places like Mars, where a crew remains aboard the same craft for extended periods of time, could mean that the overall microbe diversity could steadily decline.

One study, called Mars500, attempted to simulate conditions aboard a spacecraft exploring Mars, but didn't take into account factors like weightlessness, radiation, or the state of bacteria inside the human body.

According to Leonard Mermel, who has researched questions like these for NASA, all these factors could add up to disaster if not managed correctly.

"I don't know if the acceleration of knowledge regarding the microbiome has kept up with how you build a spacecraft," Mermel said. "If there's not enough knowledge, the risk is for [human development] not going right is greater."
Science
Science News
Astrobiology
Space
Mars
Microbes From Earth Could Put Mars Colonies in Serious Danger
No
Yes