ISS ‘superbug’ discovery raises ‘health concerns’ for astronauts with Sunita Williams aboard


Researchers from the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) are collaborating on a study of a ‘superbug’, a multidrug-resistant pathogen, discovered on the International Space Station (ISS). This finding has raised ‘health concerns’ for astronauts, with Sunita Williams currently on board the ISS. The research on this pathogen could also have significant applications on Earth.Enterobacter bugandensis, a common nosocomial pathogen, has been detected on surfaces within the ISS. “In a new scientific paper funded by an Ames Space Biology grant, Principal Investigator Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory strains of the bacterial species Enterobacter bugandensis isolated from the International Space Station (ISS) were studied,” NASA said in its release on April 16 this year.

ndian-origin Sunita Williams, 58, embarked on her third space journey on Thursday, June 6, alongside Wilmore, aged 61. This historic event marked the first voyage aboard Boeing’s Starliner spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). Williams serves as the pilot for the flight test, while Wilmore assumes the mission commander role.

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What are the findings so far?

Astronauts face unique health challenges in space due to their altered immune conditions and limited access to medical facilities. The researchers said comprehending the microbial landscape aboard the ISS is crucial to evaluating its impact on astronaut well-being.

“The current study emphasises the critical need to investigate the pathogenic potential of microorganisms in space environments to safeguard astronaut health and mitigate the risks associated with opportunistic pathogens,” news agency PTI quoted IIT-M statement from a release.

– Researchers conducted a thorough study to explore the genomic, functional, and metabolic enhancements of multidrug-resistant pathogens, focusing on Enterobacter bugandensis.

– The study highlights the urgent need to investigate the pathogenic potential of microorganisms in space environments to protect astronaut health and mitigate risks from opportunistic pathogens.

– The research findings offer promising applications in controlled Earth settings, such as hospital intensive care units, where multidrug-resistant pathogens present significant challenges.

– Understanding the genomic adaptations of multidrug-resistant E. bugandensis can facilitate the development of targeted antimicrobial treatments.

– Insights into the persistence and succession patterns of E. bugandensis in space can guide strategies for managing microbial contamination in closed environments like spacecraft and hospitals, the research said.

Why is it a concern in ISS?

Another study cited by NASA regarding E. bugandensis highlighted the significance of the International Space Station (ISS) as a symbol of human achievement in space exploration.

Despite the space station’s controlled environment characterised by microgravity, heightened Carbon dioxide levels, and increased solar radiation, microorganisms thrive in a distinctive niche.

These microbial residents play a vital role in impacting the health and welfare of astronauts aboard. Enterobacter bugandensis, commonly found in clinical samples such as the human gastrointestinal tract, is reported to possess pathogenic characteristics, potentially causing various infections.