Tech UPTechnologySuperbacteria colonize the International Space Station

Superbacteria colonize the International Space Station

Where there are humans there are bacteria. And superbugs. Normal, because about a hundred billion microorganisms live in the intestines of a single person. The astronauts take them with them when they travel to space, and they leave part there when they return to Earth. And not only those of your microbiome, but also other types of microbes.

The problem is that in environments like that of the International Space Station (ISS), extreme conditions can increase the resistance of these microorganisms until they become superbugs almost invulnerable to antibiotics. In addition, crews, stressed and isolated in a closed and hostile environment (in which there is microgravity, cosmic radiation …) suffer a weakening of the immune system.

It is the perfect storm: bacteria strengthened in the face of adversity that take advantage of the weaknesses of the organisms that host and feed them, resulting in a place colonized by these doped microorganisms, which are very difficult to combat.

Infections are therefore one of the problems that can make long stays in space hell. It is a matter to be resolved if we want to visit –and who knows whether to colonize– other planets, such as Mars.

Vitamined metals

Eliminating this problem is the goal of a team of researchers from several Russian and German scientific institutions, who have just published in Frontiers in Microbiology the results of their experiment to combat astronaut superbugs.

They have tested a new antimicrobial material, a coating that is applied to surfaces prone to bacterial contamination, such as the toilets in the ISS. They have called it AGXX. It contains silver – a metal whose anti-pathogen properties have been known for centuries -, ruthenium and vitamin derivatives, and it kills all types of bacteria, as well as certain fungi, yeasts and viruses. And as Professor Elisabeth Grohmann, lead author of the study, explains, “the cape regenerates itself, it does not wear out with use”.

Heading into deep space

AGXX’s cape proved lethal in testing. According to Grohmann, after six months on the ISS, there was not a single bacterium on the surfaces it coated. At 12 and 19 months, only 12 were found, a ridiculous number that is 80 percent less than when coating a surface with other silver-based solutions. “And what is more important – adds the researcher -, no pathogens of human origin were found. Right now, the risk of infection for the crew of the Station is low ”.

However, bacteria have shown how tough they are to peel. The experiment has revealed that those found were capable of forming protective films, and at least three were resistant to antibiotics.

The next step is to improve these solutions, with an eye on long-duration manned missions such as those that will take us perhaps to Mars and beyond. As Grohmann points out, “immunosuppression, the virulence of the bacteria and therefore the increased chances of suffering an infection increase with the duration of the flight.”

Image (NASA): The International Space Station – photographed from the Discovery shuttle after docking – flies over the Caspian Sea.

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