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Microbes found aboard the International Space Station aren’t as scary as they seem

Published Jan 9th, 2019 12:53PM EST

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Over the past few months there’s been a lot of talk about the conditions inside the International Space Station and its potential to spawn new, potentially dangerous kinds of microscopic organisms. Close study of the microbes found inside the space station suggested that they may be mutating, and fears of “superbugs” that were resistant to modern antibiotics dominated the discussion.

A new research effort appears to indicate that the bacteria in the ISS is indeed mutating, but not for the purposes of circumventing human defenses. As it turns out, the tiny microbes might just be trying their best to adapt to their strange new home in space.

The work, led by Erica Hartmann of Northwestern University, was published in the journal mSystems. In the paper, Hartmann and her fellow researchers explain that close study of the mutated bacteria doesn’t point to the organisms evolving for the purposes of spreading, but merely surviving.

“There has been a lot of speculation about radiation, microgravity, and the lack of ventilation and how that might affect living organisms, including bacteria,” Hartmann said in a statement. “These are stressful, harsh conditions. Does the environment select for superbugs because they have an advantage? The answer appears to be ‘no.’”

Hartmann says that the bacteria that live on human skin are in an ideal situation, but those that are “shed” and end up on surfaces — both here on Earth and in space — have to come up with a new survival strategy. “Based on genomic analysis, it looks like bacteria are adapting to live — not evolving to cause disease,” first author Ryan Blaustein notes. “We didn’t see anything special about antibiotic resistance or virulence in the space station’s bacteria.”

The researchers make it clear that none of this is to say that diseases can’t spread in an environment like that of the International Space Station, but at the moment it doesn’t appear that the bacteria found in the ISS is behaving any differently from their counterparts back on Earth.