Microbes naturally exist no matter where humans reside. And it turns out that the microbes on board the International Space Station look more like what you’d find in your living room than what you would find on a human body.
That’s the result of a new study of swabs taken by astronauts on the orbiting complex. The results were published in PeerJ, a peer-reviewed open access journal.
"‘Is it gross?’ and ‘Will you see microbes from space?’ are probably the two most common questions we get about this work," said co-author David Coil, a microbiologist at the University of California, Davis, in a statement. "As to the first, we are completely surrounded by mostly harmless microbes on Earth, and we see a broadly similar microbial community on the ISS. So it is probably no more or less gross than your living room."
The astronauts took their samples from 15 locations on the ISS. Despite its remote location, thousands of species live on the space station. But what’s more interesting is the variety of bacteria that are found. The researchers compared the space bacteria to those found in homes (from a study called "Wildlife of Our Homes") and human bodies (the Human Microbiome Project).
They found that the types of bacteria are similar to what you would find in a typical home. That’s interesting because the space environment is very controlled; only a handful of astronauts visit a year. The only other influx of microbes happens when astronauts unload a visiting spaceship, such as a SpaceX Dragon. Despite this, the community of microbes living alongside the astronauts appears robust.
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"The microbiome on the surfaces on the ISS looks very much like the surfaces of its inhabitants, which is not surprising, given that they are the primary source," said Jennifer Lang, lead author of the study and a former postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis. "We were also pleased to see that the diversity was fairly high, indicating that it did not look like a ‘sick’ microbial community."