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article imageOp-Ed: Following humans into space, fungi and bacteria are real risks

By Paul Wallis     Nov 3, 2019 in Science
Boulder - Humans live surrounded by microorganisms of all kinds. The most persistent are on skin and on anything around people. They’re also going into space and could become a serious issue.
The problem is sufficient for NASA to grant $750,000 funding to the University of Colorado in Boulder to study the current situation and future risks. It’s a pretty daunting type of study, involving investigating the dangers of any range of microorganisms and how much damage they could do.
They’re not likely to be studying the inevitable “Mutant Microbes of Outer Space” thing just yet. The more banal but serious issues include whether or not fungi and microbes can damage systems due to their habit of attacking surfaces. Biofilms and fungi are well known for interactions with materials on Earth, and that’s actually far more of a problem than being the basis for a new movie about mutant monsters.
These micro life forms are literally everywhere, all the time. Humans shed skin with microbes on it. Anything to do with humans, and practically everything on Earth, comes pre-contaminated. All of these things can theoretically cause medical conditions, too. Long flights can affect the immune system, making otherwise low-risk pathogens more dangerous.
Some of them are pretty tough. Fungal enzymes can break down anything organic, and they can make an impression on inorganics, too, if so inclined. Bacteria also use chemistry to survive, so they’re an all-round issue. Some fungi in space have been positively identified as toxic, so it’s no minor thing.
Deep space, deep issues
For long-term space missions, damage of any kind is a quite adequate problem to worry about. A built-in, ready to go when you are, problem like fungi or bacteria, however, is hardly a help. The fix needs to protect systems, protect the crew, and ensure that corrosion caused by microbiota is minimal or preferably nil.
It’s an interesting problem. Fungi are famous for their affinity to water, too. Fungal contamination of plumbing could cause some pretty weird situations, as well as threatening the water supply. Ingesting fungi can be fatal, or make you very sick. Fungi can destroy food supplies. Bacteria can not only make you sick, they can attack food, too. Unless you like grilled fungi and diseases, it could be a pretty grim diet.
The other issue, and it’s a big one, is that whatever solutions are found need to be practical while in space. The crew will have to do whatever needs doing. Bringing along a friendly biologist would help, but this all-round hygiene is something everyone will have to do.
Fixes? Maybe.
Most bacteria work with chemistry which involve micro voltages of charged chemicals. In theory, a micro charge could disrupt or destroy the chemistry, protecting the ship. In practice, any sort of electronic solution has to make sure that it doesn’t affect ship systems.
Fungi are quite happy to destroy and eat bacteria. That said, the likely rampage of duly enlisted friendly fungi could be a problem in itself. Fungi produce massive blooms. They’d be a self-sustaining system that needed management.
Disinfectants are also chemically active. Some bleaches are great for controlling fungi and bacteria, but very powerful. Where do you find a bleach that will get rid of the problems, but not eat materials? The bleaches are also chemically hyperactive, another consideration.
Bio-trapping is an option. A nutrient which also poisons unwanted bacteria is a possibility. Warmth, water and poison can do that, but what, where, and how?
Less obvious is the problem of not doing anything which might threaten human essential biota. Humans are only about 10% human. The rest includes a majority of microbial life forms, genes, etc. Get too cute about “destroy all microbes” and you could kill the crew, too.
It’ll be an interesting study. The University of Colorado has its work cut out for it, and that $750,000 grant should be topped up. These problems need due respect, and proper research.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
More about University of Colorado NASA grant 2019, fungi n spae, bacteria in space, space travel immune system problems, fungal enzymes
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