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NASA Astronauts Identify Unknown Microbes in Space

January 2, 2018
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NASA Astronauts Identify Unknown Microbes in Space

NASA astronaut Peggy Whitson and the Genes in Space-3 team have identified unknown microbes in the international space station.

There might be trillions of bacteria living on the space station. NASA has been working for a while to identify these microbes. This could help future astronauts monitor crew health and diagnose ailments in real time.

However, thanks to the Genes in Space-3 project, NASA astronauts and biochemists have identified microbes aboard the space station for the first time.

The microbes turned out to be ordinary microbes. But now that the technique has been shown to work in space, there’s no telling what astronauts might find next.

“Right away, we saw one microorganism pop up, and then a second one, and they were things that we find all the time on the space station,” the Earth-based principal investigator Sarah Wallace said in a statement.

Previously microbes had been sequenced on board the ISS, but those samples had been prepared on Earth. So, there was no way to find something in space and genetically identify it straight away.

Scientists have found microbes with the ability to survive in the vacuum of space, living outside the ISS. So, being able to quickly identify them will help scientists confirm whether they’re Earth microbes or not.

Identifying the microbe

Identifying the microbes was a two-step process. First, NASA astronaut and biochemist Peggy Whitson had to collect samples and subject them to Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR). PCR is a technique that amplifies a sample of DNA to create many of copies of it.

The second step was sequencing and identifying the microbes. So, for this, Whitson had to use petri dishes to collect samples from various surfaces around the space station. Then, she just let the samples grow for a week before transferring them into small test tubes inside the Microgravity Science Glovebox – the first time this has ever been done in space.

Scientists sent the data down to NASA’s team in Houston for analysis.

“Right away, we saw one microorganism pop up, and then a second one, and they were things that we find all the time on the space station,” Wallace said.

So, the microbes were all ordinary.

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Thumbnail image credit: NASA

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