In NASA’s Sterile Areas, Plenty of Robust Bacteria
Posted On October 9, 2007
WASHINGTON, Oct. 6 — Researchers have found a surprising diversity of hardy bacteria in a seemingly unlikely place — the so-called sterile clean rooms where NASA assembles its spacecraft and prepares them for launching.
Samples of air and surfaces in the clean rooms at three National Aeronautics and Space Administration centers revealed surprising numbers and types of robust bacteria that appear to resist normal sterilization procedures, according to a newly published study.
The findings are significant, the researchers report, because they can help reduce the chances of stowaway microbes contaminating planets and other bodies visited by the spacecraft and confounding efforts to discover new life elsewhere.
“These findings will advance the search for life on Mars and other worlds both by sparking improved cleaning and sterilization methods and by preventing false-positive results in future experiments to detect extraterrestrial life,” said the leader of the study, Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a microbiologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
Samples taken from clean rooms at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida and the Johnson Space Center in Houston revealed almost 100 types of bacteria, about 45 percent of which were previously unknown to science, the study said. While some were common types that thrive on human skin, such as Staphylococcus species, others were oligotrophs, rarer microorganisms that have adapted to grow under extreme conditions by absorbing trace nutrients from the air or from unlikely surfaces like paint.