Infectious Superbugs Discovered on International Space Station

By RJ Johnson - @rickerthewriter

November 27, 2018

In space, no one can hear you scream 'ewwwww'. 

According to a new study published in BMC Microbiology this week, samples of bacteria resistant to several antibiotics have been found on the International Space Station. And while the superbugs found up in space may not make astronauts sick, the study's authors warn it's possible. 

In January, scientists examined samples swabbed from surfaces of the ISS in 2015 where they found more than 100 bacterial genes that are known to help bacteria be resistant to antibiotics. One particularly virulent strain known as Enterobacter bugandensis, was found to be resistant to all nine antibiotics tested against it. 

Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a Senior Research Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group, explained how they were able to track the bacteria they found on the ISS. 

"To show which species of the bacteria were present on the ISS, we used various methods to characterize their genomes in detail. We revealed that genomes of the five ISS Enterobacter strains were genetically most similar to three strains newly found on Earth. These three strains belonged to one species of the bacteria, called Enterobacter bugandensis, which had been found to cause disease in neonates and a compromised patient, who were admitted to three different hospitals (in east Africa, Washington state and Colorado)."

Enterobacter bacteria can be found everywhere - especially in human's guts. Typically, the bugs don't cause illness, but for people with weakened immune systems, the bacteria can become the source of a serious, life-threatening infection. 

So far, the superbugs don't seem to have infected any of the astronauts on the ISS or caused any disease on board. But, in what is surely not a worrisome plot point for our future, one scientist has speculated that bacteria in microgravity could evolve faster than they otherwise would on Earth, or even develop traits that dull the germ-killing effects of antibiotics. 

"Whether or not an opportunistic pathogen like E. bugandensis causes disease and how much of a threat it is, depends on a variety of factors, including environmental ones," Venkateswaran said in a statement. "Further in vivo studies are needed to discern the impact that conditions on the ISS, such as microgravity, other space, and spacecraft-related factors, may have on pathogenicity and virulence." 

Which is a fancy way of saying scientists want more time to study the superbugs in orbit. Because, unless science fiction movies have been lying to us over the last fifty years, there's nothing to be concerned about. Right? 


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