Space Bathroom

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.

Dartnell, Lewis, Space Bugs!, Microbiology Today


Human Gut Microbe (Entercoccus faecalis)

A team of scientists led by Sarkis K. Mazmanian, Assistant Professor of Biology, at California Institute of Technology have discovered that the bacterial flora of our gut can be actively stimulated to promote health.

The 100 trillion bacteria occupying the human gut have evolved alongside our digestive and immune system over millions of years. Intelligent bacteria have shaped their gut environment by positively interacting with the host immune system to promote health. Mazmanian reports the bacteria are actively modifying the gut through the mediation of molecules. The scientists have identified that a symbiotic gut bacterium Bacteroides fragilis, produces a sugar molecule called polysaccharide A or PSA with health boosting benefits.

In this case PSA induces immune-system cells called CD4+T cells to produce interleukin -10 (IL-10), a molecule shown to protect against inflammatory bowel disease.

The scientists predict that other types of symbiotic gut bacterium produce molecules with similar health benefits. This discovery radically changes our perception and relationship with our bacterial-ecosystem. It reveals that bacteria actually reprogram our own immune system to promote health.

As previously outlined in this blog and through my creative practice ‘The Race’ aims to create visions of a bacterial-centric society. As demonstrated by Mazmanian’s research, I feel we need to re-align our understanding or ourselves, our metagenomics and the complicated interactions we have with our human microbial ecosystem. To re-evaluate our behavior and lifestyles accordingly.

“Through societal measures we have changed our association with the microbial world in a very short time span. We don’t have the same contact with microbes as we have for millions of years–we just live too clean now,” Mazmanian says. So while it is useful to eliminate disease-causing organisms, “perhaps disease results from the absence of beneficial bacteria and their good effects,” he suggests. “This study is the first demonstration of that. What it hopefully will do is allow people to re-evaluate our opinions of bacteria. Not all are bad and some, maybe many, are beneficial.”

California Institute of Technology (2008, May 28). Getting Better With A Little Help From Our ‘Micro’ Friends. ScienceDaily.