Houston, We Have a Problem!

Since its inception 23 years ago, the International Space Station (ISS) has stood as a beacon of human ingenuity and collaboration, orbiting nearly 400 kilometres above our Earth’s surface. Recently, researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, in collaboration with NASA, shed light on the microbial inhabitants of this marvel of modern engineering, revealing potential health risks and expanding our understanding of extreme environments.

ISS is a highly controlled and sealed environment experiencing microgravity (weightlessness), elevated CO2 levels and cosmic radiation and thus provides a unique opportunity to observe microbial community dynamics within a closed, engineered environment.

Microorganisms exposed to the unique conditions of ISS can acquire antibiotic resistance and more virulence because of rapid mutations and horizontal gene transfers. At the same time, prolonged space travel under microgravity can compromise astronauts’ immune systems, making them more vulnerable to diseases. Therefore, understanding the colonization and behavior of these microorganisms is crucial for safeguarding the well-being of onboard astronauts and managing microbial risks in other confined environments.

In this study, the authors focus on a recently recognised species of bacteria found in the ISS, called Enterobacter bugandensis, as the Enterobacter species act as opportunistic human pathogens and cause a variety of health complications in the human body, such as lower respiratory tract infections, osteomyelitis, sepsis, and urinary tract infections.

During the Microbial Tracking 1 (MT-1) mission, researchers isolated 13 multi-drug resistant strains of E. bugandensis from the ISS. Through a comprehensive approach integrating genomics, metagenomics, and metabolic modelling, they unraveled the strategies employed by these bacteria for adaptation and persistence in the ISS ecosystem.

One of the main aims of this study was to compare ISS-derived E. bugandensis genomes with their terrestrial counterparts, with an emphasis on clinical isolates. This facilitates a better understanding of the evolution of pathogens and improves strategies for infection control on Earth.

This work could be further extended to other cleanrooms, such as hospital ICUs and surgical theatres. It also paves the way for exploring microbial dynamics in extreme environments, which lays a solid foundation for future hypotheses, expanding the horizons of microbial ecology research as well as ensuring the health and safety of astronauts. This work was funded by the Science and Engineering Research Board and the Prime Minister’s Research Fellowship from the Ministry of Education to Mr. Pratyay Sengupta.

The following are the authors who were involved in this study:

  1. Mr. Pratyay Sengupta is a PhD scholar in the Department of Biotechnology at the IIT Madras, who is also affiliated with the Center for Integrative Biology and Systems mEdicine (IBSE) and the Robert Bosch Centre for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (RBCDSAI).
  2. Mr. Shobhan Karthick M S is a Dual-degree student in Biological Engineering in the Department of Biotechnology at the IIT Madras.
  3. Dr. Nitin Kumar Singh is a Scientist in the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, California, USA.
  4. Dr. Karthik Raman is a Professor at the Department of Data Science and AI at the Wadhwani School of Data Science & AI, IIT Madras. His research group works on developing algorithms and computational tools to understand, predict and manipulate complex biological networks.  He coordinates the Centre for Integrative Biology and Systems mEdicine (IBSE) at IIT Madras and is a core member of the Robert Bosch Centre for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence (RBC-DSAI).
  5. Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran is a Senior Research Scientist at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, California, USA. His research encompasses marine, food, and environmental microbiology. He is also leading ISS “Microbial Observatory” projects to measure microorganisms associated with U.S. nodes, as well as Kibo Japanese Experiment Modules.

Dr. Niranjan Nagarajan who is a Senior Group Leader at the Laboratory of Metagenomic Technologies and Microbial Systems, and is also the Associate Director of Genome Architecture at the Genome Institute of Singapore, Singapore, acknowledged the importance of the work done by the authors with the following comments: “As human space exploration becomes more common, the role of microbes as co-passengers in space travel cannot be ignored. This study provides a fascinating perspective into how microbes evolve and adapt to harsh environments in space. It delves into how a new entrant to the space station microbiome can create its own niche and potentially benefit other microorganisms as well. Future studies will likely build on this work to help us design better space stations and improve safety of space travel.”

Article by Akshay Anantharaman
Click here for the original link to the paper


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