Trouble For Sunita Williams, Crew After 'Spacebug' Detected At Space Station

Sunita Williams and her crew reached the ISS on board the new Boeing Starliner spacecraft on June 6

New Delhi:

A new headache has mounted for NASA’s Indian-origin astronaut Sunita Williams and the eight other crew members on board the International Space Station (ISS) including those who are currently inhabiting the orbiting station. A superbug lurks inside the city in space the International Space Station.

Scientists have found a multi-drug resistant bacteria named ‘Enterobacter bugandensis’ which has evolved and become more potent in the closed environment of the ISS. Since it is multi-drug resistant, it is often called a ‘superbug’. This bacteria infects the respiratory system.

Spacebugs are not extra-terrestrial life but bugs that have travelled as hidden as hidden co-passengers when they went to work at the ISS.

Ms Williams and her colleague Astronaut Barry Eugene “Butch” Wilmore reached the ISS on board the new Boeing Starliner spacecraft on June 6, 2024, and are likely to spend over a week in the low earth orbiting laboratory before returning to Earth after having tested the new spacecraft she helped design.

The seven other crew members have been living on the ISS for a longer period. Usually, the worry at the ISS is from flying space debris and micrometeorites but bugs that have been carried as co-travellers and now evolved over the last 24 years of continuous inhabitation of the space station are a big new worry.

Writing about the superbugs recently, NASA said strains of the bacterial species E. bugandensis isolated from the International Space Station (ISS) were studied. Thirteen strains of E. bugandensis, a bacterium notorious for being multi-drug resistant, were isolated from the ISS.

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Findings from the study indicate under stress, the ISS-isolated strains were mutated and became genetically and functionally distinct, compared to their Earth counterparts.

The strains were able to viably persist in the ISS over time with a significant abundance. E. bugandensis co-existed with multiple other microorganisms, and in some cases could have helped those organisms survive.

Superbug Enterobacter bugandensis that thrives on the International Space Station (Courtesy: NASA)

Superbug Enterobacter bugandensis that thrives on the International Space Station (Courtesy: NASA)

The work has been spearheaded by Dr Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, USA.

Incidentally, he studied Marine Microbiology, at the Annamalai University, in Chennai before joining NASA. In 2023, he discovered a new multi-drug resistant bug called Kalamiella Piersonii which he named after his role model former President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam.

Further research on E. bugandensis was undertaken jointly by JPL and Indian Institute of Technology-Madras, Chennai by a team comprising Professor Karthik Raman, Department of Data Science and AI, Wadhwani School of Data Science and AI (WSAI), Dr Kasthuri Venkateswaran, Senior Research Scientist at JPL, NASA, Mr Pratyay Sengupta, Mr Shobhan Karthick MS, Research Scholars, IIT Madras and Mr. Nitin Kumar Singh from JPL, NASA and published in the scientific journal Microbiome.

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The researchers point out that astronauts operating in altered immune conditions with limited access to traditional medical facilities face unique health challenges during space missions. Understanding the microbial landscape aboard the ISS is paramount for assessing the impact of these microorganisms on astronaut well-being.

Emphasising the broader implications of the research, Dr Kasthuri Venkateswaran, Senior Research Scientist at JPL, NASA, said, “Our research uncovers how certain benign microorganisms help to adapt and survive opportunistic human pathogen, E. bugandensis, in the unfavourable conditions of the International Space Station. The knowledge gained from this study would shed light on microbial behaviour, adaptation, and evolution in extreme, isolated environments that allow in designing novel countermeasure strategies to eradicate opportunistic pathogens, thus protecting the health of astronauts.”

NASA says ‘closed human-built environments, such as the ISS, are unique areas that provide an extreme environment subject to microgravity, radiation, and elevated carbon dioxide levels. Any microorganisms introduced to these areas must adapt to thrive. By delving into microbial dynamics in extreme environments, this research opens doors to effective preventative measures for astronaut health.’

Professor Karthik Raman said, “Microbes continue to puzzle us by growing in the most challenging conditions.”