"These are stressful, harsh conditions. Does the environment select for superbugs because they have an advantage?"
The “stressful, harsh conditions” are the inside of the International Space Station … conditions that the Russian space program suggested last year could drive a lonely and stressed astronaut to sabotage the ship by drilling a tiny hole (unproven and unlikely but the cause of the hole in the attached Soyuz capsule is still up in the air – pun intended) in order to trigger an emergency and be sent home. If the conditions on the ISS are bad for humans, what about their fellow passengers – the bacteria they bring with them on their bodies, their ships and their cargo? Could the hole have been secretly drilled by superbugs intent on taking over the ship and possibly the planet?
“The built environment contains a variety of microorganisms, some of which pose critical human health risks (e.g., hospital-acquired infection, antibiotic resistance dissemination). We uncovered a combination of complex biological functions that may play a role in bacterial survival under the presumed selective pressures in a model built environment—the International Space Station—by using an approach to compare pangenomes of bacterial strains from two clinically relevant species (B. cereus and S. aureus) isolated from both built environments and humans.”
In a new study entitled “Pangenomic Approach To Understanding Microbial Adaptations within a Model Built Environment, the International Space Station, Relative to Human Hosts and Soil,” Northwestern University assistant professor of environmental engineering and study co-author Erica Hartmann describes how a team of researchers compared particularly dangerous bacteria on Earth -- S. aureus is the staph-causing super-bane of hospitals – to samples of the same found on the ISS. That in itself is no surprise – it’s impossible to completely sterilize humans, let alone their stuff – but the impact of living in the hostile environment of the space station was expected to turn these bacteria into mutations far stronger than the superbugs they already are on Earth. Does it?
“The answer appears to be 'no.'"
There goes the movie script but Hartmann’s conclusion is good news for present and future space travelers. While the bacteria is definitely muting in space, co-author Ryan Blaustein told Science Daily there’s a different reason for it.
"Based on genomic analysis, it looks like bacteria are adapting to live -- not evolving to cause disease. We didn't see anything special about antibiotic resistance or virulence in the space station's bacteria."
Is the fact that the “bacteria are adapting to live” really good news? The study concludes that the mutated ISS bacteria “do not appear to have direct impacts on human health,” but they’re looking at disease-causing impacts. Other studies like the one on twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly showed that living for a year in space had unexpected effects on Scott. What happens when bacteria "adapting to live” see an astronaut carrying a disinfectant wipe heading their way or spot their best friend on the hands of a space tourist about to Purell them?
Movie plot or the future? Dr. Hartmann?
“But as we talk about expanding space flight to tourists who do not necessarily meet astronaut criteria, we don't know what will happen. We can't say that if you put someone with an infection into a closed bubble in space that it won't transfer to other people. It's like when someone coughs on an airplane, and everyone gets sick."
Everyone … but the bacteria.