In orbit 250 miles above Earth, the International Space Station (ISS) hosts a handful of scientists and astronauts who live permanently in the orbital outpost – and a host of microbes that lived on the research facility. Among these microbes, scientists recently discovered five strains of Enterobacter – a drug-resistant hospital bug, known to cause a number of dangerous infections, reports RT.
The fact that germs can be found on the ISS is hardly a revelation – "Where people exist, there are bacteria, even in space," NASA said a few years ago, when the Pasadena, California Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) published a study on microbes found in dust particles collected from space station air filters.
However, finding five different varieties Enterobacter on-board the orbiting laboratory could pose a threat to the future shipments of space stations, especially given the drug-resistant profile of bacterial strains.
Conformable Phys.org, the five strains of Enterobacter were isolated by the ISS in March 2015 and were discovered inside the space toilets and the platform of exercises that astronauts use to preserve shape and combat muscular atrophy associated with living in a microgravity environment.
At the discovery of these bacteria, JPL launched an investigation into the genetic way of each individual strain and found them all genetically similar to the three Enterobacter strains recently identified on Earth. Known as Enterobacter bugandensis, these three strains of bacteria "were found to cause disease in neonates and a compromised patient who were hospitalized in three different hospitals" – two in the U.S. and one in East Africa, JPL microbiologist Kasthuri Venkateswaran said in a statement.
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Writing in the journal BMC Microbiology, Venkateswaran and colleagues pointed out that the new ISS microbes do not harm the crew of the space station in its current form. However, computer simulations by the JPL team have shown that Enterobacter bugandensis discovered in space, has a 79% probability of becoming pathogenic – which means it could end up infect astronauts and cause disease.
Taking into account the results of multi-drug resistance for these ISS E. bugandensis genomes and the increased pathogenic chances we have identified, these species could pose important health considerations for future missions, "said lead study author Dr. Nitin Singh, a JPL biotechnology researcher and Planetary Protection Group.
However, it is important to understand that the strains found on the ISS were not virulent, which means they are not an active threat to human health but something to be monitored.
To determine the genetic profile of the beetles, scientists have compared the five Enterobacter bugandensis genes of nearly 1300 Enterobacter stems collected on Earth. The analysis showed that ISS bacteria were resistant to five of the most commonly used antibiotics, including penicillin and oxacillin. In addition, microbes have been shown to be resistant, intermediate or susceptible to four other antibiotics.
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While the new study shows that the hospital bug found on the ISS could cause problems for future astronaut missions, the team underlined that more research is needed before anyone can determine how infectious Enterobacter bugandensis it could be in space.
"If a pathogen such as E. bugandensis causes disease and how large a threat it is, it depends on a variety of factors, including the environment," said Venkateswaran.
Unique conditions on board ISS – including microgravity, space radiation and high levels of carbon dioxide – have been known to increase microbial resistance to antibiotics, notes RT. This means that Enterobacter bugandensis found in space could become more virulent over time.
Conformable AntiMicrobe.org. Enterobacter bacteria can cause a wide range of infections that could affect the lungs, lower respiratory tract and urinary tract. These microbes are also known to cause ophthalmic, cutaneous and soft tissue infections as well as intra-abdominal infections. A certain strain of Enterobacter, called E. sakazakii, was linked to sepsis with meningitis in neonates.