International Space Station Toilets Home To Mysterious ‘Space Bugs’

A mockup of the U.S. Destiny Lab at the ISS.
Loren Elliott / Getty Images

While infectious bugs from outer space may more commonly be the stuff of science fiction, it would appear that there is at least some validity to the concept, at least according to the Mirror. A new report published in the open-access journal BMC Microbiology indicates that the toilet on the International Space Station (ISS) is home to at least five different strains of Enterobacter, a bacteria which is similar to other bacterial varieties commonly found on hospitals here on Earth.

According to the Daily Mail, the “infectious organisms” may not currently pose a threat to astronauts — or those who come into contact with them upon their return to terra firma, but they do constitute a potential threat in future, bearing a 79 percent probability of leading to disease.

Another complication comes in the form of the strangely drug-resistant properties of said bacteria inhabiting the toilets of the ISS, according to lead author of the study Dr. Nitin Singh.

“Given the multi-drug resistance results for these [bacteria] and the increased chance of pathogenicity we have identified, these species potentially pose important health considerations for future missions.”

It is, however, important to note that the current iterations of the Enterobacter found on the orbital space station are not virulent — meaning that they do not pose any threat to human health, at least as yet.

Per the New York Post, Singh would go on to elaborate that, “it is important to understand that the strains found on the ISS were not virulent, which means they are not an active threat to human health, but something to be monitored.”

A microbiologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran, also noted that three of the five Enterobacter strains identified on the ISS belonged to a species known to cause illness in newborn babies. The New York Post also pointed out that the mysterious bugs had been found in a “comprised patient,” indicating that a suppressed immune system may provide a window of opportunity for the bacterial strains to strike.

The trope of alien bugs or parasite infecting unwitting and unwilling human hosts has long been a staple trope of popular science fiction. In John Carpenter’s seminal 1982 sci-fi slash horror classic The Thing, an extraterrestrial parasite inhabits and emulates its mammalian hosts until it can catch them unawares, savagely attacking them. The Invasion, a 2007 science fiction film by the well-regarded Wachowski siblings — of The Matrix fame — posited that a fungal infection hidden dormant in a crashed American space shuttle might spread the world over, infecting the minds of its victims.

Though these flights of fancy may seem unlikely and otherworldly, this most recent study provides findings that bear strong consideration and caution — lest yet another science fiction prediction end up joining the actual scientific record.