Microbiomes in Space

Microbiomes in Space

We now know that the human microbiome is crucial to our health and wellbeing. The estimated 100 trillion microbes that live on/in our bodies, with the bulk living in our gut, help control vital homeostatic mechanisms in the body. They help to give us an enhanced metabolism, resistance to infection and inflammation, and prevention against autoimmunity. But when we are in space how do these microbes continue to survive and work with our bodies? As there is now more research into space explorations scientists have looked into how nature reacts within harsh environments to better understand how space travel may affect us. This includes sending baby squid to the International Space Station. Scientists are also looking at how different microbes could in fact benefit humans in space, as some can even help produce oxygen.


Microgravity can completely change how our body works, including the microbes that work with the body. Spacecraft such as the ISS are also kept to certain conditions, and need to be extremely clean. But this can lead to health issues as the astronauts are deprived of the microbes needed for their microbiomes. Fungi and microbes are already used on earth to create medicines for illnesses. Therefore, it will become necessary to transport these microbes in space. A SpaceX rocket has now taken dozens of baby squid from Hawaii to the  ISS with the hope to study human health during long space missions. 


The bobtail squid were reared at the Kewalo Marine Laboratory at the University of Hawaii. These tiny squid were chosen for the study as they have a symbiotic relationship with natural bacteria that help regulate their bioluminescence. This has similarities with a human and their relationship with microbes. By studying how the squids’ relationship with the bacteria changes in space they may be able to find out what is going wrong with human’s microbes in microgravity, and how their immune systems become dysregulated as it becomes unable to recognise bacteria.

Around 20,000 tardigrades were also taken to the ISS on the mission. These are better known as water bears, and they are extremely special as they can survive in drastic environments. The microscopic tardigrades were launched frozen but will be thawed when they reach the space station. While there they will be observed and tested to identify the genes behind their incredible adaptability. Researchers have also seen that tardigrades are able to reproduce easily in space, showing that these harsh conditions don’t affect them. 


Microbes could also be crucial in the development of technologies that will allow more people into space, and even eventually inhabit other planets. BioAsteroid will be launched to the space station by SpaceX to look at the possibility of Biomining, using rock eating microbes. This technology uses a collection of 12 automatic culturing devices fitted with a layer of material on which bacteria and fungus will be grown. Biomining on the moon could be a way to provide air, and also provide rare earth metals, which can be used in products such as computers. Regolith is a layer of loose rocky material on top of a solid rock which can support humans in harsh environments. The reoglitth on the moon contains 40% oxygen. A fungus has also been found that can adapt to the harshest conditions. This is known as it was found at the Chenrobyll site. The Cryptococcus neoformans fungus is capable of decomposing radioactive material and turning it into energy. NASA is now looking at growing this on the outside of space crafts in order to act as a shield against radiation, and to work as a generator. radioactive material




NASA: Rachel Ormsby

NASA: Jamie S. Foster


Nate Follmer