Studying microbes in space

A new microbe has been discovered on the International Space Station. The species, Solibacillus kalamii, was isolated from an air filter on board the station, and is described in the Microbiology Society’s journal, IJSEM.

In space, no one can hear you clean.

Okay, strictly speaking that isn’t true. But cleaning in space isn’t something that you tend to hear much about, even though keeping the International Space Station (ISS) spic and span is a top priority for the astronauts who call it home.

This is because the ISS is a closed system, meaning the air inside has to be continually recycled. To make sure it stays clean and fresh, the environmental control systems are packed with air filters to get rid of dust and germs. The astronauts also have to do their bit too – tidying, cleaning and vacuuming is a regular part of life aboard the space station.

All of this rubbish has to go somewhere, and normally the space station just jettisons all its trash in a giant capsule that burns up in the Earth’s atmosphere. But to researchers, the dust inside the air filters and vacuum cleaner bags is too valuable to just throw away. Instead it makes its way back to Earth, where it ends up in the hands of Dr Kasthuri Venkateswaran – a microbiologist working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.

Part of Venkat’s job is to monitor the microbes on the space station, to see if any of them could pose a threat to the astronauts on board. But it’s also to search for microbial species we’ve never seen before, in the hope that they may have useful characteristics.

The group has been busy analysing a 40-month-old HEPA filter from the ISS that was brought back to Earth on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Arrester, and these filters are able to trap anything larger than 0.3 microns (0.0003 mm) across, and according to Venkat, can collect 99.97% of microbes passing through them. Having travelled to space and back, these filters have to be handled carefully, to prevent any contamination from terrestrial microbes.

“We have a clean room to open such precious samples,” says Venkat. “So I opened it here, we collected the debris from the filter paper, and then carried out a microbial analysis.”

When they looked at the microbes that are orbiting the Earth with the astronauts, the team found a new species: Solibacillus kalamii. They describe their find in the Society’s International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology. This new species looks well adapted to living in the difficult conditions 250 km above us.

“Solibacillus kalamii actually possesses an extraneous layer [on its outer surface],” explains Venkat. “Certain microbes have an extra layer rich in lipoglycoprotein, a kind of blanket. This can be used as a protective agent against radiation, like sun screen.”

Venkat hopes that biocompounds like these could one day be incorporated into space suits, and provide extra protection for astronauts when they are outside the space station. The ISS is a great location to look for compounds like this, as only hardy microbes which adapt to these tough conditions can survive.

“High radiation, microgravity, high CO2 – these are conditions that make some microbes perish, but other [tolerant] microbes that develop adaptive strategies can survive.”

This work was part of a project called MT-1 (Microbial Tracking 1), looking at the surfaces and air supply in the space station for three consecutive flights. But Venkat’s team is also working on other projects. ­

One of these is called Micro-10, where the group sent the fungus Aspergillus nidulans up to the ISS and compared it to one that was grown here on Earth. The aim is to explore whether microgravity allows microbes to produce novel compounds that could be used as drugs or within biotechnology.

Another is a project called MT-2, which is looking specifically for pathogens on board the space station, to understand how microbes may influence astronaut health.

“In a closed system, the astronauts are constantly shedding microbes and picking them up – it’s like living in an intensive care unit,” says Venkat.

This kind of microbiological research is especially important for looking at the effects of long-haul space flight. If we ever do make it to Mars, the trip would take 6–8 months – it would be a wasted journey if the astronauts got sick before they arrived.

Anand Jagatia

Image credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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How to network at a conference

The Microbiology Society Annual Conference is just a couple of weeks away!

While this is definitely exciting, there is one aspect some of you may be nervous about: networking.

Networking is a bit of a dirty word in science – but it’s not about schmoozing over wine and cheese, and it doesn’t have to be scary.

Watch our video for some great tips on how to network effectively.

Head over to our website for more resources on Microbiology Careers.
We also have a video on giving great presentations, which you can find here.

Anand Jagatia

Posted in Events, Professional Development, Video | 1 Comment

New to Science: Microbes from Aloe vera, anchovies and the Red Sea

Before we get going, a quick bit of news. All of our journals, including IJSEM, have now moved to continuous publication! This means that papers are now published on a rolling basis as soon as they have been approved and finalised. Articles will still be collated into monthly issues, from which we’ll still be highlighting our favourites.

And if you enjoy New to Science, check out our new ‘Microbe Profiles’ in the journal Microbiology. These are concise, free-to-read overviews of novel microbes written by leading microbiologists. You can read the first profile, focusing on E. coli O157:H7, here.

Now onto the new species for this month. A team from Thailand and Japan have
discovered a novel bacterium from the root of Aloe vera, which they name Achromobacter aloeverae. And elsewhere in the plant world, scientists from China haveisolated the actinobacterium Streptomyces capparidis from the fruits of the caper bush. These fruits are known as caper berries, while the capers themselves are actually edible flower buds.

In the Republic of Korea, microbiologists have found a new bacterial species living in traditional fermented anchovies (a food known as myeolchi-jeotgal). The species, Virgibacillus jeootgal, is able to survive in the food’s high salt concentrations, which can be up to 30% of the total mass! Continue reading

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Review: ‘Resistance’ on BBC Radio 4

Today, BBC Radio 4 broadcast the first episode of Resistance – a three-part drama series written by Val McDermid and developed through the ‘Experimental Stories’ collaboration between the BBC and the Wellcome Trust.

Here, we post a mini-review of the episode but beware, this will contain spoilers. We also got the thoughts of Professor Laura Bowater from the University of East Anglia.

The episode opens with a rather chilling portent of things to come, with the central character, Zoe Meadows, declaring that: “We had no idea at the time that this was where the end began…” Continue reading

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Bacteria from the ancient city of Troy

Everyone knows the story of the Trojan horse. The Greeks, in a war against the Trojans, hid some soldiers inside a giant wooden horse and left it outside the city of Troy. Thinking that they’d won, the Trojans dragged the horse inside the city walls. Later that night, the Greek soldiers crept out and sacked Troy from the inside, winning the war.

10484115406_fc857d33e8_oOur story this month is also set in ancient Troy, and has a few things in common with this mythical tale. There’s no great battle, but there is death. And instead of soldiers hiding inside a wooden horse, it involves some unexpected microbes hiding inside the chest of a woman who died 800 years ago.

We spoke to Caitlin Pepperell from the University of Wisconsin–Madison about her research into this woman’s story, and the remarkable molecular portrait of her life and death that scientists were able to piece together.

Anand Jagatia

You can read the original paper behind this research here.

Image credit: summerbl4ck on Flickr under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Posted in Clinical and Medical Microbiology, Podcast | Tagged | 1 Comment

How concerned should we be about H7N9 flu?

thinkstockphotos-87711730The past few weeks have seen an increasing amount of coverage about an ongoing outbreak of the H7N9 strain of avian influenza in China (often called ‘bird flu’).

Reports suggest that in January almost 200 people were confirmed as being infected with the virus, of whom 79 died. The WHO indicates that many of the people infected were likely to have been exposed to poultry or have been to environments where live birds are kept. This is in keeping with how the vast majority of human infections have occurred since the strain first emerged in 2013.

Does this year’s H7N9 outbreak represent something of wider concern? What are the chances that the virus will evolve and gain the ability to be transmitted between people, rather than from poultry to people? We asked Microbiology Society member Wendy Barclay, Professor of Influenza Virology at Imperial College London. Continue reading

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Bacterial freeloaders: An unexpected mechanism of resistance

Bacteria are very good at evolving resistance to our drugs. Once all-powerful wonder-cures, antibiotics are steadily becoming less effective. If antibiotic resistance continues to spread, reports suggest that by 2050, 10 million people could die every year from infections we won’t be able to treat.

This is a serious problem. To solve it, we need to have a better understanding of the mechanisms that allow bacteria to evade drug treatment. And the science of how they do that is pretty incredible.

For example, bacteria can evolve pumps to bail antibiotic molecules out of their insides. Or they can produce molecules to neutralise antibiotics directly. And sometimes, they even mutate the structure of their own molecules, so that the antibiotics can’t bind to their targets. Continue reading

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