A Bacterial Journey Into Space ?


John A. Jaksich


Often times many of us wonder if we will find life beyond the confines of our planet? The Earth teems with many types of life—in the oddest places it may seem at times. The latest finding is from Lake Whillans under the Antarctic ice—other odd findings for life come in the form of nematodes. Tiny and microscopic—it has been estimated that there are so many species of nematode that the no corner of the Earth is not occupied by one species or another. Bacteria are more numerous on the Earth than any other species of life—as well. And of course—it had been joked that prior to the 1967 U.N. Outer Space Treaty, lunar probes may have contaminated the Moon’s surface. Surely enough, terrestrial bacteria were found by the Apollo 12 astronauts on NASA’s Surveyor 3 probe of the 1960s. (Photo of Surveyor 3 below)

Photograph of Surveyor 3 taken by Astronaut Allan Bean, Apollo 12 Source:  NASA via Wikipedia

Photograph taken by Astronaut Allan Bean, Apollo 12
Source: NASA via Wikipedia

Shockingly enough, of late, researchers have determined that the heartiest of bacteria survive simulated conditions on journeys to Mars (as well as survival upon the Martian surface). This evidence calls into question whether we have already contaminated Mars in 1976—the year which the twin Viking spacecraft landed upon the surface of the red planet. Although at the time—results of “life detection” experiments came back as questionable or non-existent. Some planetary scientists cast a skeptical eye upon the results. And, needless to say, the mass spectral data from the Viking landers do indicate the possible presence of methane.

A recent publication (Stieglmeier, etal, 2012) indicated bacteria can survive the sterile conditions of ESA spacecraft-associated clean rooms. The published results revealed three types of non-spore forming bacteria survived—namely, Staphylococcus, Micrococcus, and Acinetobacter. Standard clean room hygiene of 80 degree Celsius “Heat-shock” failed to remove these bacteria. It is unknown to scientists why this may occur—currently. It should also be noted that certain strains of bacterial spores survived as well.  Even the survival of non-spore forming bacteria imply the extent and diversity to which the clean rooms need to be reassessed for sterility .

Directly from the study:

‘ . . . results presented here clearly show that standard protocols required by the space agencies underestimate the abundance of microorganisms in clean room facilities. For more accurate estimations of the actual bioburden, additional analyses and improvement of current methods are necessary. . . .’ “

However, there is more to the study—as well. The methodologies required to assure complete sterility (at the current juncture) entail devising better detection methodologies of contaminants.

Directly from the study:

‘ . . . the introduction of a bead-beating step in the DNA extraction procedure could help assess the bacterial spore DNA for molecular analyses. Further, the application of propidium monoazide staining techniques could help distinguish 16S rRNA gene signals from intact (viable) or dead cells. . . ‘ “

The references in the paper are a wealth of information for those who may be interested in the current state of clean room hygiene.  I “further” quote from the study:

‘ . . . The analyses of European spacecraft assembly facilities and in particular the consequent comparison of current standard assays with molecular microbiology techniques have significantly improved our understanding with regard to community structure, concentration, distribution, and bioburden in spacecraft assembly facilities. . . ‘ “

In my closing—it may further be argued that these “bugs” may shed some light as to why certain bacteria “morph” into super-bugs, but that is a question for another time and place.


Sources for piece:

Stieglmeier, etal, (2012) Astrobiology, Vol 12, Number 6.

 New York Times citation for Antarctic Lake Whillans:


1990s NASA confirmation of Lunar contamination via NASA news :

Earth microbes on the moon


Lastly, an excellent article by:

Moissel-Eichinger C. etal, (2012) The First Collection of Spacecraft-Associated Microorganisms: A Public Source for Extremotolerant Microorganisms from Spacecraft Assembly Clean Rooms. Astrobiology, 12: 11, 1024-1034

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