Bacteria On The International Space Station Are Mutating To Survive, Not To Become Superbugs


Recent news stories have seen people becoming concerned with the fact that bacteria aboard the International Space Station are mutating. And, as with space stories and fans of science fiction, there is always a worrying story behind these mutations. Some claim that these changes could turn the bacteria into superbugs. However, new evidence suggests something else entirely.

According to the Independent, the bacteria on board the International Space Station (ISS) is mutating merely to survive its environment and not because they are morphing into superbugs that could be considered a threat to humans.

Those on board the ISS had discovered that bacteria found floating in the laboratory on board the space station was different to its counterparts found on Earth. However, the mutations found are likely an evolutionary process to help the bacteria survive in what could be considered a stressful or vastly different environment to what they are used to.

Lead study author Erica Hartmann, a biological design professor at Northwestern University, released a statement via Eureka Alert on the findings.

“There has been a lot of speculation about radiation, microgravity and the lack of ventilation and how that might affect living organisms, including bacteria. These are stressful, harsh conditions.”

Over the course of space travel, there had been the concern that bacteria was mutating while in space. On Earth, mutations do occur thanks to environmental factors as bacteria moves from location to location. These mutations are adaptive in order to survive and are usually considered harmless. However, superbugs are bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics and that can become a threat to humans if they become ill as a result of a superbug. So, in the close confines of crafts such as the ISS, this was certainly a big concern.

According to Live Science, the researchers “analyzed DNA from two kinds of bacteria that had taken a trip to the ISS: Staphylococcus aureus (which is found on skin and causes staph infections) and Bacillus cereus (which is present in digestive systems and soil and usually harmless).”

The microbes were collected from the ISS and was from bacteria that likely “hitched a ride to space on the skin of astronauts or inside their bodies.”

And what they found was that while the bacteria had mutated, it hadn’t mutated in the same way that causes superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics.

“Based on genomic analysis, it looks like bacteria are adapting to live — not evolving to cause disease,” said Ryan Blaustein, a postdoctoral fellow in Hartmann’s laboratory and the study’s first author. “We didn’t see anything special about antibiotic resistance or virulence in the space station’s bacteria.”

Which means that people can breathe a sigh of relief regarding the bacteria on board the International Space Station.

The new study was published on January 8 in the journal mSystems. While superbugs have previously been found on board the ISS, it does not appear that they were there because they had mutated while in space.