Microbes are going to infinity and beyond! Monitoring community changes on a simulated space station

As we’ve discussed previously here, understanding microbes in the natural and built environment around us, has implications related to human health and disease. It has turned out to be pretty tricky to clarify what is going on with our most constant companions, even though we all know the truth is out there.

Figure 1. Mayer et al., 2016


ALF! image courtsey of google commons.

Other studies have found that increasing confinement, and maintaining closed off spaces leads to an increase in opportunistic pathogens as well as other closely human-related genera and pose a risk to human health. Additional research conducted in hospitals also found (maybe as you might guess?) that regulating air ventilation impacted microbial community composition as well.It has been shown that the human immune system isn’t quite as efficient as it could be when we are confined to tiny spaces and sent up in space. As we move into that big black abyss above us, we have to take into account the microbes that we bring with us and think about how these communities trapped with us on enclosed space stations might affect the health of astronauts, as well as any ALFs (Alien Life Forms) we run into.
Figure 2. Mayer et al., 2016

Figure 2. Mayer et al., 2016

A recent study in Microbiome by Mayer and colleagues, has presented data collected from an “inflatable lunar/Mars analogous habitat (ILMAH)” that was manned by three graduate students (who maybe drew the short straws for who gets to do what for the study?) for up to 30 days. The study was undertaken in part to see if the students would have some kind of mental breakdowns or flip out after being confined to a small space with two other people. Even though, hard to see…the microbial community is…the researchers involved also decided to study changes in the microbial community associated with the crew living in ILMAH.
The group monitored certain locations in the ILMAH before and during the ‘mission’ using a variety of sequencing techniques and looking at both the microbes that could be cultured as well as those that could not. They found that, as time went on, more cultivable and viable bacteria were found. Additionally, statistically significant larger populations of Actinobacteria and Firmicutes were observed at the end of the mission in comparison. Maybe it’s not a big surprise, but the study also concluded that humans are the source of ‘contamination’ on the pseudo space station.

Figure 4. Mayer et al., 2016

This is an interesting foray into the world of microbes in space. In the future, I’m sure more studies will follow, in attempts to both regulate human health on space crafts as well as avoid potential contamination that we might bring to other planets (or moons!). To read more about different space / microbe related stuff, check out this page by Jonathan Eisen, pretty interesting! Hopefully, in the future, studies focused on unraveling the complex microbial world that thrives in our built environment will help us live long and prosper.


Mayer, Teresa, Adriana Blachowicz, Alexander J. Probst, Parag Vaishampayan, Aleksandra Checinska, Tiffany Swarmer, Pablo de Leon, and Kasthuri Venkateswaran. “Microbial succession in an inflated lunar/Mars analog habitat during a 30-day human occupation.” Microbiome 4, no. 1 (2016): 1. DOI: 10.1186/s40168-016-0167-0

La Duc MT, Kern RG, Venkateswaran K. Microbial monitoring of spacecraft and associated environments. Microb Ecol. 2004;47:150–8.

Pierson D, Botkin D, Bruce R, Castro V, Smith M, Oubre C, et al. Microbial monitoring of the International Space Station. In: Moldenhauer J, editor. Environmental Monitoring: A Comprehensive Handbook. River Grove: DHI Publishing, LLC; 2012.

Venkateswaran K, La Duc MT, Horneck G. Microbial existence in controlled habitats and their resistance to space conditions. Microbes Environ. 2014;29(3):243–9.

Kembel SW, Jones E, Kline J, Northcutt D, Stenson J, Womack AM, et al. Architectural design influences the diversity and structure of the built environment microbiome. ISME J. 2012;6(8):1469–79.

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