May 29, 2008
Houston we have a problem! We cannot escape the fact that humans are a thriving conglomeration of bacteria and microbes, which are essential to our biological functions. However if you’re NASA, or any other space-exploring organisation for that instance, this presents a problem.
Microbiology Today reports on the microbiota that has already made the transition to space. “The first extensive in-flight studies of microbial diversity were carried out on the Russian space station Mir. Mir was humanity’s first long-term inhabited outpost in space, launched in 1986 and consisting of a five-port docking hub with connected resupply ships and habitation modules. Over the course of the station’s
almost 15 years of service, numerous studies were conducted on the biota surviving”.
Widespread bacterial colonisation was found, particularly in free-floating water globules due to the antigravity system. Contaminants due to human occupation were found throughout the station, and alongside the bacterial biota, these included fungi, amoebae, ciliated protozoa and even dust mites.
As reported, our species has the responsibility as explorers of not inadvertently spreading our “terrestrial contamination to the extraterrestrial locations we visit”.
We cannot escape the fact that when we travel from our planet, our symbiotic friends go with us. With probes, satellites and unmanned missions we can sterilise our equipment to make sure our earth-based microbes don’t contaminate other planets. On the current Mars mission a biobarrier bag – effectively an interplanetary condom – will protect the excavation digging arm from carrying bacteria to the planet. It will only be unsheathed once on the Martian surface.
Here lies the problem, when we eventually send manned missions to Mars or other planets we can’t sterilise ourselves. We wouldn’t be human without our microbial fauna.
If we do decide to venture into space there’ll be little we can do to stop taking our microbial fauna with us. But perhaps this is the natural system of transporting life around the solar system and has been happening from the birth of our universe. Maybe we should be equally worried about what alien microbes may hitch a lift back to earth with us from the places we visit.