Orbiting bacteria: Space Station may need some tidying up

Updated 1:57 AM EDT, Thu October 29, 2015
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Story highlights

Modern kind of DNA test found an unexpected amount of bacteria on the ISS

It's believed the bacteria arrived on the astronauts themselves and by way of the cargo

(CNN) —  

The next time NASA picks an astronaut to live in the International Space Station, it might want to send Mr. Clean. That’s because scientists using a kind of high-tech white glove test found something in the space dust there.

The astronauts are not alone, it turns out. They share tight quarters with some previously undetected, opportunistic bacterial pathogens.

They don’t call this bacteria “opportunistic” for nothing, said Kasthuri Venkateswaran who worked on the research at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and co-authored the paper in the latest issue of the journal Microbiome.

This bacteria, by its very nature, is “looking for an opportunity to become pathogenic,” Venkateswaran said. Meaning these little pests are mostly innocuous on Earth, but under the extreme environment of space, it could behave differently. The DNA test researchers used to identify them could not determine whether the bacteria could hurt astronaut health, since it is based on a genetic analysis, but microgravity can change bacterial behavior, earlier studies showed.

Currently, astronauts spend six months on the space station, but as NASA eyes a much longer mission to Mars – a journey that could take two years – the agency will want to make sure its astronauts won’t be exposed to anything that could harm them.

Out of an abundance of caution, it is worth monitoring more carefully, researchers said. Exactly how did the bacteria Corynebacterium (a bacteria that could cause respiratory infection) and Propionibacterium (bacteria that could cause acne) end up in the space station?