Can We Survive in Space? It Might Depend on How Our Gut Microbiome Adapts

Researchers at Penn State University are developing a way to use microbes to turn human waste into food on long space voyages. Image: Yuri Gorby, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Microbes play a critical role on Earth. Understanding how they react to space travel is crucial to ensuring astronaut health. Credit: Yuri Gorby, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

For over a century, people have dreamed of the day when humanity (as a species) would venture into space. In recent decades, that dream has moved much closer to realization, thanks to the rise of the commercial space industry (NewSpace), renewed interest in space exploration, and long-term plans to establish habitats in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), on the lunar surface, and Mars. Based on the progression, it is clear that going to space exploration will not be reserved for astronauts and government space agencies for much longer.

But before the “Great Migration” can begin, there are a lot of questions that need to be addressed. Namely, how will prolonged exposure to microgravity and space radiation affect human health? These include the well-studied aspects of muscle and bone density loss and how time in space can impact our organ function and cardiovascular and psychological health. In a recent study, an international team of scientists considered an often-overlooked aspect of human health: our microbiome. In short, how will time in space affect our gut bacteria, which is crucial to our well-being?

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Even Tiny Amounts of DNA on Mars Will Be Detectable

The Perseverance Mars rover took this selfie with several of the 10 sample tubes it deposited on the Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS.

The Search for Life is focused on the search for biosignatures. Planetary life leaves a chemical fingerprint on a planet’s atmosphere, and scientists are trying to work out which chemicals in what combinations and amounts are a surefire indicator of life. Martian methane is one they’re puzzling over right now.

But new evidence suggests that super-tiny amounts of DNA can be detected in Martian rocks if it’s there. And though it requires physical samples rather than remote sensing, it’s still an intriguing development.

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The International Space Station Gets a Clean Bill of Health. Despite a Few Opportunistic Microbes, the Station is “Safe” for Astronauts

In a recent study published in Microbiome, a team of researchers led by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory conducted a five-year first-of-its-kind study investigating the microbiome (environmental profile) of the International Space Station (ISS). The purpose of the study was to address “the introduction and proliferation of potentially harmful microorganisms into the microbial communities of piloted spaceflight and how this could affect human health”, according to the paper.

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Animals Could Have Been Around Hundreds of Millions of Years Earlier Than Previously Believed

Credit: Elizabeth Turner/Laurentian University

According to the most widely accepted theories, evolutionary biologists assert that life on Earth began roughly 4 billion years ago, beginning with single-celled bacteria and gradually giving way to more complex organisms. According to this same evolutionary timetable, the first complex organisms emerged during the Neoproterozoic era (ca. 800 million years ago), which took the form of fungi, algae, cyanobacteria, and sponges.

However, due to recent findings made in the Arctic Circle, it appears that sponges may have existed in Earth’s oceans hundreds of millions of years earlier than we thought! These findings were made by Prof. Elizabeth Turner of Laurentian University, who unearthed what could be the fossilized remains of sponges that are 890 million years old. If confirmed, these samples would predate the oldest fossilized sponges by around 350 million years.

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Did Ancient Martian Life Eat Rocks For Food?

Some lucky astronomers get to work with some of the rarest material in the world.  Real Martian meteorites are extraordinarily rare, but are invaluable in terms of understanding Martian geology. Now, one of the most famous meteorites, nicknamed “Black Beauty”, is helping shed light on a much more speculative area of science: Martian biology.

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Microbes Were Dormant for Over 100 Million Years, But They Were Able to Spring Back to Life

Magnified image showing microbes revived from 101.5-million-year-old sediment. Image Credit:Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology

At the bottom of the ocean in the South Pacific Gyre, there’s a sediment layer that is among the most nutrient-starved environments on Earth. Because of conditions in that area, there’s almost no “marine snow”—the shower of organic debris common in the ocean—that falls to the ocean floor. Without all that organic debris falling to the floor, there’s a severe lack of nutrients there, and that makes this one of the least hospitable places on Earth.

A team of researchers took sediment samples from that area, and extracted 101.5 million year old microbes. When they “fed” those microbes, they sprang back to life.

The results are expanding our knowledge of microbial life and how long it can be dormant when conditions force it to be.

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A NASA Panel Says We Don’t Need to be so Careful About Infecting Other Worlds

This artist's concept depicts NASA's Mars 2020 rover exploring Mars. Credit: NASA

It’s time to update the rules. That’s the conclusion of a panel that examined NASA’s rules for planetary protection. It was smart, at the dawn of the space age, to think about how we might inadvertently pollute other worlds with Earthly microbes as we explore the Solar System. But now that we know a lot more than we did back then, the rules don’t fit.

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Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria has been Found on the Space Station’s Toilet

The International Space Station (ISS), seen here with Earth as a backdrop. Credit: NASA
The International Space Station (ISS), seen here with Earth as a backdrop. Credit: NASA

NASA keeps a close eye on the bacteria inhabiting the International Space Station with a program called the Microbial Observatory (M.O.) The ISS is home to a variety of microbes, some of which pose a threat to the health of astronauts. As part of their monitoring, the M.O. has discovered antibiotic resistant bacteria on the toilet seat on the ISS.
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What’s that Strange Glowing Mold? Astronauts will Soon be Able to Sequence Unknown Space Organisms

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins poses for a picture with the minION device during the first sample initialization run of the Biomolecular Sequencer investigation. Credits: NASA

Seeking to understand more about space-born microbes, NASA has initiated a program known as Genes in Space-3 – a collaborative effort that will prepare, sequence and identify unknown organisms, entirely from space. For those who might be thinking that this sounds a lot like the film Life – where astronauts revive an alien organism on the International Space Station and everyone dies! – rest assured, this is not the setup for some horror movie.

In truth, it represents a game-changing development that builds on recent accomplishments, where DNA was first synthesized by NASA astronaut Kate Rubin aboard the International Space Station in 2016. Looking ahead, the Genes in Space-3 program will allow astronauts aboard the ISS to collect samples of microbes and study them in-house, rather than having to send them back to Earth for analysis.

The previous experiments performed by Rubin – which were part of the Biomolecule Sequencer investigation – sought to demonstrate that DNA sequencing is feasible in an orbiting spacecraft. The Genes in Space-3 seeks to build on that by establishing a DNA sample-preparation process that would allow ISS crews to identify microbes, monitor crew health, and assist in the search for DNA-based life elsewhere in the Solar System.

NASA astronaut Kate Rubins became the first person to sequence DNA in space and sequenced more than a billion bases during her time aboard the ISS. Credits: NASA

As Sarah Wallace – a NASA microbiologist and the project’s Principal Investigator (PI) at the Johnson Space Center – said in a recent press release:

“We have had contamination in parts of the station where fungi was seen growing or biomaterial has been pulled out of a clogged waterline, but we have no idea what it is until the sample gets back down to the lab. On the ISS, we can regularly resupply disinfectants, but as we move beyond low-Earth orbit where the ability for resupply is less frequent, knowing what to disinfect or not becomes very important.”

Developed in partnership by NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Boeing (and sponsored by the ISS National Lab), this project brings together two previously spaceflight-tested molecular biology tools. First, there is miniPCR, a device which copies targeted pieces of DNA in a process known as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) to create thousands of copies.

This device was developed as part of the student-designed Genes in Space competition, and was successfully tested aboard the ISS during the Genes in Space-1 experiment. Running from September to March of 2016, this experiment sought to test if the alterations to DNA and the weakening of the immune system (both of which happen during spaceflight) are in fact linked.

Student Anna-Sophia Boguraev, winner of the Genes in Space competition, is pictured with the miniPCR device. Credits: NASA

This test will be followed-up this summer with Genes in Space-2 experiment. Running from April to September, this experiment will measure how spaceflight affects telomeres – the protective caps on our chromosomes that are associated with cardiovascular disease and cancers.

The MinION, meanwhile, is a handheld device developed by Oxford Nanopore Technologies. Capable of analyzing DNA and RNA sequences, this technology allows for rapid analysis that is also portable and scalable. It has already been used here on Earth, and was successfully tested aboard the ISS as part of the Biomolecule Sequencer investigation earlier this year.

Combined with some additional enzymes to demonstrate DNA amplification, the Genes in Space-3 experiment will allow astronauts to bring the lab to the microorganisms, rather than the reverse. This will consist of crew members collecting samples from within the space station and then culturing them aboard the orbiting laboratory. The samples will then be prepared for sequencing using the miniPCR and sequenced and identified using the MinION.

As Sarah Stahl, a microbiologist and project scientist, explained, this will allow crews to combat the spread of infectious diseases and bacteria. “The ISS is very clean,” she said. “We find a lot of human-associated microorganisms – a lot of common bacteria such as Staphylococcus and Bacillus and different types of familiar fungi like Aspergillus and Penicillium.”

In addition to being able to diagnose illnesses and infections in real-time, the experiment will allow for new and exciting research aboard the ISS. This could include identifying DNA-based life on other planets, the samples of which would be returned to the ISS via probe. In addition, if and hen microbes are found floating around in space, they could be returned to the ISS for swift analysis.

Another benefit of the program will come from Earth-based scientists being able to access the experiments going on aboard the ISS in real-time. And scientists here on Earth will also benefit from the tools being employed, which will allow for cheap and effective ways to diagnose viruses, especially in parts of the world where access to a laboratory is not possible.

Once more, the development of systems and tools for use in space – an environment that is not typically conducive to Earth-based technologies – is offering up applications that go far beyond space travel. And in the coming years, ISS-based genetic research could help in the ongoing search for extra-terrestrial life, as well as provide new insights into theories like panspermia (i.e. the cosmos being seeded with life by comets, asteroids and planetoids).

Be sure to enjoy this video titled “Cosmic Carpool”, courtesy of NASA’s Johnson Space Center:

Further Reading: NASA