On Earth, people are cautious with the water they are drinking. But on the International Space Station, scientists are extra careful because of microgravity. Now, a new study from researchers at the Arizona State University found that the space station's drinking water s teeming with microbial life.
In the study, titled "Longitudinal Characterization of Multispecies Microbial Populations Recovered From Spaceflight Potable Water" published in the Nature journal npj Biofilms and Microbiomes, researchers looked at biofilms that were found in the ISS water system that typically recycles astronaut urine to make it into drinking water.
Microbial Life in the International Space Station's Potable Water System
A news release via Phys.org reported that lead author Jiseon Yang and her colleagues characterized different microbial populations from potable water samples from the International Space Station sent back to Earth from 2008 to 2015.
While checking for microbial species on the ISS water system has always been done to monitor the quality of potable water on the space station, it is still hard to use microbial identification approaches alone to predict how bacteria would behave in microgravity.
The current study investigates critical microbial function properties to expand the knowledge of how microbial life would behave in a microgravity environment of spaceflight. There have been issues that claim microgravity could alter bacterial characteristics including their ability to form biofilms in the water system of the space station that could risk long-haul space missions.
"Our study provides in-depth phenotypic analyses of single- and multi-species bacterial isolates recovered from the ISS water system over multiple years to understand long-term microbial interactions and adaptation to the microgravity environment," Yang said in the news release. "The results from our study may improve microbial risk assessments of human-built environments in both space and on Earth."
According to Futurism, NASA would have to send approximately 10,000 pounds of water per crew member each year without the sophisticated water purification system of the space station.
Researchers at least have a better idea about the bacteria on the ISS water system. But more work is still needed to determine the exact implications of their presence, given that immune response weakens during the journey to space.
What are Biofilms?
As the team focused on the long-term historical record of the different bacterial populations living in the ISS water system, they examined how biofilms could hinder space missions. The Debrief notes that biofilms are little collective ecosystems of bacteria, which are hardly understood on Earth much more on space.
The findings suggest that waterborne bacteria isolate on the ISS showed resistance to many antimicrobial compounds and antibiotics. More so, they found that complex biofilms were formed, such as Burkholderia that displayed an ability to destroy red blood cells, which could endanger the health of the crew onboard.
Researchers noted that understanding microbial function will help develop critical spacecraft life support systems for future space missions. For now, water on the ISS is safe to drink, although they emphasize that the situation could change over time and could harm health.
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