Monitoring microbes in spaceflight: the search for innovative antimicrobial surfaces
The International Space Station (ISS) is more than just a laboratory. To astronauts, it is their home. To survive outside of Earth's protective atmosphere, astronauts depend on the station’s closed environment, where they have constant temperature and moisture, an atmosphere, and several life-support systems such as water recycling and waste management. When you are in such an isolated habitat, especially one surrounded by harsh space conditions, you want everything to go exactly as planned. So, what happens when your food, walls, windows and systems become colonised with unwelcome microbes?##markend##
The Space Microbiology Research Group at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), led by Ralf Moeller, is interested in how microorganisms react in spaceflight conditions and what this implies for the future of space exploration. Marta Cortesao, a PhD student in Moeller’s group, was at the Science Slam of ILA Berlin 2018 Future Lab presenting her research:
“One of the main topics we address is the search for antimicrobial surfaces. Basically, if we can build our spacecraft with materials that prevent – or at least delay – microbial growth, then we are one step ahead to control microbial contamination in long-term space missions to Mars and beyond.
What we do is look at the most common materials used on the ISS and see how microbes grow on them and if they form biofilms - a special kind of growth that makes microbes more resistant to antibiotics and sterilization methods. For instance, we are testing polycarbonate, a material which many syringes (used in medicine and science experiments) are made of, but also aluminum (used in computers and other electronics) and quartz (used on the ISS windows). So we are now involved in two space projects – one from NASA (Biofilm in Space) and one from ESA (Biofilms) – that will allow us to test these materials in real spaceflight conditions.
Controlling microbial contamination is a challenge we deal with every day when we forget things in the refrigerator, or when our bathroom walls suddenly have a mouldy look. Microbes are everywhere, and not all of them are bad. But to prevent unwanted growth or even to use microbes to our advantage we need to understand how they work, and how they adapt to their surroundings. This is particularly important in space, as the environment is very different to what we are used to here on Earth."