Monitoring microbes to keep Marsonauts healthy
October 4, 2017

Monitoring microbes to keep Marsonauts healthy

To guarantee a safe environment for astronauts on long-duration space missions such as a journey to Mars, it is important to monitor how microorganisms such as bacteria adapt to the confined conditions onboard spacecraft, according to a study published in the open access journal Microbiome.

Dr Petra Schwendner, University of Edinburgh, corresponding author of the study said: “Until now, little was known about the influence of long-term confinement on the microorganisms that live inside habitats that may one day be used to travel to other planets, and whether the structure of the microbiota changes with time. Ours is the first comprehensive long-time study that investigates the microbial load, diversity and dynamics in a closed habitat – a mock-up spacecraft – for 520 days, the full duration of a simulated flight to Mars.”

The team of researchers from Germany, UK and Austria, led by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), found that apart from the crew who were the main source of human-associated bacteria inside the habitat, confinement appeared to be the strongest trigger shaping the bacterial community – the microbiota – which remained highly dynamic over time.

Human-associated microorganisms, including Bacillus and Staphylococcus species were the most frequent, indicating that humans were the main source for microbial dispersal, according to the researchers. For example, Staphylococcus, which is frequently found in the nose, respiratory tract, and on the skin, was probably dispersed via skin flakes shed by the crew. Although Staphylococcus will not always cause disease, it is a common cause of skin infections, especially in individuals with weakened immune systems.

In order to find out which bacterial species may be present in the air and on the surfaces inside spacecraft and how the composition of the microbiota may change during human habitation, a crew of six male “Marsonauts” lived inside a mock-up spacecraft, located in Moscow, from 3rd June 2010 to 5th November 2011. During the isolation period the crew members remained fully confined – they never left the closed habitat. Simulating conditions during a manned mission to Mars, they followed a strict diet and schedule, which included cleaning the habitat and conducting scientific experiments. They collected 360 microbial samples from 20 locations (9 air, 11 surface) at 18 time points, using air filters and swabs.

While a core microbiota of the same bacteria was present in all areas of the mock-up spacecraft, the authors noticed specific bacterial signatures for each individual area, or module, indicating that – much like in other indoor environments – microbial presence is associated with human presence as well as the type of activity that an area is used for. Communal areas, sleep areas, the gym, and the toilet had the highest numbers and greatest diversity of bacteria, while the lowest numbers of bacteria were found inside the medical module.

Dr Schwendner said: “We also saw the impact of cleaning agents. Although we located some microbial hotspots, where the number of bacteria was much higher than in other areas, we were quite relieved to find that the overall bacterial counts were within the acceptable limits. Due to appropriate cleaning measures, the microbial community inside the habitat was under control at all times with no or little risk for the crew.”

The researchers also noticed that the microbial diversity decreased significantly over time which means that there were fewer different species of bacteria present. This may indicate potentially problematic developments within the microbial community during long-duration isolation, according to the authors. High microbial diversity is normally associated with systemic stability and health.

Dr Schwendner said: “In addition to potential health risks for the crew, some of these microorganisms could have a negative impact on spacecraft, as they grow on and might damage spacecraft material. To ensure the systems’ stability, countermeasures may be required to avoid development of highly resistant, adapted microorganisms, and a complete loss of microbial diversity. Our study provides valuable insights into the quality of habitat maintenance and improves the selection of appropriate microbial monitoring approaches, allowing for the development of efficient and adequate countermeasures.”

The MICHA study was part-funded through the Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure (RI) Transnational Access Programme.

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Notes to editor:
1. Images of the facility:

External view of the facility. Credit: IBMP/Oleg Voloshin


Medical Module. Credit: IMBP/OlegVoloshin


Individual quarter. Credit: IBMP/Oleg Voshin

2. Research article: Preparing for the crewed Mars journey: Microbiome dynamics in the confined Mars500 habitat during simulated Mars flight and landing Schwendner et al. Microbiome 2017
DOI: 10.1186/s40168-017-0345-8
After the embargo lifts, the article will be available at the journal website here:
Please name the journal in any story you write. If you are writing for the web, please link to the article. All articles are available free of charge, according to BMC’s open access policy.

3. The central purpose of Microbiome is to unite investigators conducting microbiome research in environmental, agricultural, and biomedical arenas. Topics broadly addressing the study of microbial communities, such as, microbial surveys, bioinformatics, meta-omics approaches and community/host interaction modeling will be considered for publication. Through this collection of literature Microbiome hopes to integrate researchers with common scientific objectives across a broad cross-section of sub-disciplines within microbial ecology.

4. A pioneer of open access publishing, BMC has an evolving portfolio of high quality peer-reviewed journals including broad interest titles such as BMC Biology and BMC Medicine, specialist journals such as Malaria Journal and Microbiome, and the BMC series. At BMC, research is always in progress. We are committed to continual innovation to better support the needs of our communities, ensuring the integrity of the research we publish, and championing the benefits of open research. BMC is part of Springer Nature, giving us greater opportunities to help authors connect and advance discoveries across the world.

5. The “MIcrobial ecology of Confined Habitats and humAn health” (MICHA) experiment was implemented to acquire comprehensive microbiome data from the unique, confined manned habitat Mars500. The aim was to retrieve important information on the occurring microbiome dynamics, the microbial load and diversity in the air and on various surfaces. The Radiation Biology Department of the German Aerospace Center’s (DLR) Institute of Aerospace Medicine was involved in selecting, cultivating and sequencing of the samples. In total, 360 samples from 20 locations were taken at 18 time-points and processed by isolation of bacteria and characterization of the overall bacterial load present. The Principal Investigator of this study at the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine was Dr. Petra Rettberg. Dr. Petra Schwendner wrote her thesis on the topic as part of the SpaceLife Graduate Program ( DLR in cooperation with the University of Regensburg. Simon Barczyk was responsible for the preparation and training of the Mars500 crew.
The Radiation Biology Department of the Institute addresses radiophysical, radiobiological and microbiological questions relevant for aviation and spaceflight. The division’s central task is to create the experimental and theoretical conditions necessary to provide effective protection from radiation in aviation and spaceflight. Moreover, the department investigates astrobiological issues with regard to the origin, distribution, and development of life.

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The Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure (RI) has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 654208 to provide access to state-of-the-art research facilities across the European Research Area and a mechanism to coordinate Europe’s planetary science community. The project builds on a €2 million Framework 6 Coordination Action and €6 million Framework 7 Research Infrastructure funded by the European Commission. The Europlanet collegial organisation, linked by a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU), has a membership of over 85 research institutes and companies.
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