Friday, 28 July 2017

Friday Fungus: The problem with mouldy spaceships

Good grief! Is this really the interior of a flying saucer?

It certainly is. What do you think?

Well, it’s a bit squalid isn’t it?

What did you expect?

Well, I don’t know… gleaming control panels… flashing lights, computer screens… Not old mattresses.
It was a good joke that the Dentrassi sleeping quarters on the Vogon constructor fleet were dirty not the gleaming, shiny TV image of a spaceship. But the reality is (albeit perhaps not for Vogons) that keeping spaceship living quarters clean really is important.

The problem, however, is that cleaning spaceships isn't just a simple matter of wiping the surfaces with Flash and leaving the tricky bits behind the cupboards and under the bed till later when you've the time and inclination. Cleaning the places spacefolk live is a matter of life and death and mould:
In our day-to-day lives on Earth, the fungi we live with aren't usually an issue. But in the confined habitat of a spaceship and potentially a Martian settlement, some researchers worry that the microbes that thrive in confined spaces could sicken people or even damage equipment. Venkateswaran, who is a member of NASA's Biotechnology and Planetary Protection Group, is also concerned about human settlers contaminating Mars with our own microbes.
As always with these things, cleaning space habitats has a name - 'proper maintenance protocols' - and really matters. Moreover, every time a new human arrives in the microbiome they bring in a whole new ecosystem of moulds (and you thought you were clean). And these moulds and bacteria change (evolve, adapt) pretty rapidly. We're not really sure about the risks but NASA and other space organisations take it pretty seriously:
In respect to human health, the importance of microbiological monitoring is extremely important for long-duration missions. In this investigation, the major focus is on indoor environmental quality control, specifically studies on environmental microbiology in space (astromicrobiological studies), in order to reduce potential hazards for the crew and the spacecraft infrastructure. Progress is made in these astrobiological studies based on past, and current, collaborative studies with JAXA. The continuing expansion of the on-going microbiological monitoring in the KIBO module, the project named “Microbe-I/II/III”, data is being collected on microbial dynamics in the habitable spacecraft environment. Collected data on these microbial communities aboard the ISS is shared with NASA, ESA, and JAXA.
Koichi Makimura who runs these experiments reckons there's a bit of an issue with those cleaning regimes:
"Fungal monitoring may (be) part of 'proper maintenance protocols' but no one knows what is 'proper maintenance,'" says Koichi Makimura, a medical researcher at Japan's Teikyo University who was also not involved in this study.

Makimura, who has studied microbes on the International Space Station, says that fungi research in general has been neglected here on Earth, so it's hard to conclude what this study's results might mean for the health of the humans isolated with these fungi. But one thing is clear—there's no getting rid of them entirely, even in space.
What's clear in all this is that any living space in space needs to be meticulously clean and cleaned. As the researchers point out there's no escaping from this because humans are 'natural fermentors' making us incredibly popular with moulds, yeasts and other micro-fungi. Maybe it's time for Kim and Aggie Clean A Spaceship?


1 comment:

Dr Evil said...

When I was a student we only had one lecturer who was a mycologist (medical mycologist so even rarer) and he had only 1 Ph.D student. My supervisor had three of us researching in his lab. Mycology is undervalued as a subject. I set up my own microbrewery so I am in cahoots with various types of yeast currently. On Mars, based on the Viking lander biology experiment results, I would be very careful about being contaminated by Martian microbes. That experiment worked as did the controls. NASA is being very ingenuous regarding this result as the mass spectrometer was not sensitive enough to detect organic material in the Martian soil. The biology experiment was self amplifying via microbial growth. Oh for an on board microscope!