Cosmic currents: Preserving water quality for astronauts during space exploration

November 13, 2023

On Nov. 9, the SpaceX Falcon rocket streaked skyward from Kennedy Area Heart in Florida, certain for the Worldwide Area Station (ISS). The rocket is on a business resupply mission dubbed CRS-2 SpX-29. Along with offering important provisions for astronauts, SpX-29 carries a particular organic sciences payload — a collaborative experiment developed by researchers at Arizona State College, Texas State College (TSU) and NASA to review how spaceflight impacts bacterial development and biofilm formation in life assist techniques on the ISS.

This experiment will present scientists with data to assist enhance spacecraft habitat sustainability — particularly, safety of probably the most important and weak assets aboard any area car: water.
The International Space Station.
The Worldwide Area Station is an orbiting oasis of science and multicountry unity. On Nov. 9, the SpaceX Falcon rocket streaked skyward from Kennedy Area Heart in Florida, certain for the Worldwide Area Station to research Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa — two microbial pathogens that might doubtlessly pose a threat to astronauts and spaceflight techniques because of the aggregation of those micro organism into sticky residues often called biofilms. Graphic by Jason Drees
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The outcomes from this research will present essential insights for future spacecraft design, life assist techniques operations and crew well being. Controlling biofilms, sticky communities of microbes that adhere to surfaces, is essential to guard the integrity of life assist techniques that present water that’s secure for consuming and private hygiene.

The analysis additionally guarantees to make clear the subtleties of bacterial habits underneath decreased gravity circumstances, in addition to bacterial actions right here on Earth, a lot of which stay poorly understood.

The 2 mannequin pathogenic microorganisms featured within the research, Escherichia coli and Pseudomonas aeruginosa, have been detected up to now aboard the ISS, and each are related to inflicting biofilms in water strains. Limiting or eliminating such bacterial pathogens from the water provide is important for the well being and security of the crew in addition to the integrity of mission-critical techniques throughout spaceflight.

In a collection of groundbreaking experiments, Cheryl Nickerson (co-principal investigator, ASU), Robert McLean (principal investigator, TSU) and their colleagues discover the chance of biofilm formation on chrome steel surfaces like these within the ISS water system, the potential for system corrosion, and the effectiveness of microbial disinfection to be able to validate the outcomes of their earlier spaceflight analysis.

“We’re honored that NASA chosen our workforce’s analysis for a uncommon reflight alternative to the Worldwide Area Station,” Nickerson says. “This supplies us the possibility to validate the outcomes from our earlier flight research to grasp and management the affect of the spaceflight setting on interactions between microbes and their habitat. It additionally displays the significance of this work to NASA’s targets to guard human well being and habitat sustainability in spaceflight.”

Cheryl Nickerson

Biodesign researcher Jiseon Yang, a contributor to the brand new mission, says, “Understanding the resilience of multispecies biofilms is necessary to make sure the well being of astronauts and the sturdiness of life assist techniques throughout prolonged area journey. This analysis goals not solely to assist the success of future deep area exploration but additionally supplies profound implications for water therapy and corrosion management on Earth.”

Nickerson is a professor with the Faculty of Life Sciences and a researcher within the Biodesign Heart for Basic and Utilized Microbiomics at Arizona State College. 

Nickerson and McClean are joined by co-investigators Jennifer Barrila (assistant analysis professor, ASU) and C. Mark Ott (lead microbiologist, NASA Johnson Area Heart), in addition to Jiseon Yang (assistant analysis Professor, ASU), Richard Davis (ASU), Sandhya Gangaraju (ASU), Taylor Ranson (Texas State College), Starla Thornhill (NASA JSC) and Alistair McLean.

The venture is a novel collaboration between ASU, TSU and NASA, and represents one of many few circumstances of joint funding between NASA’s Area Biology and Bodily Sciences divisions.

Area germs and their risk

The brand new research, dubbed BAC (for bacterial adhesion and corrosion), will examine two spaceflight hazards related to microbially contaminated consuming water. The primary is a well being risk to the spaceflight crew, brought on by E. coli and P. aeruginosa, each potent biofilm formers, which may trigger illness at excessive sufficient concentrations. Since micro organism in biofilms are identified to be immune to disinfectants and antibiotics, it makes them troublesome to take away and deal with. That is necessary on condition that the trials of spaceflight depress the immune system and a few pathogens enhance their disease-causing potential in spaceflight. Which means that area vacationers are doubtlessly extra prone to infectious illness.

The second concern is a security risk, since microbial biofilms in water might be corrosive, degrading important elements and compromising spaceflight techniques over time.

The venture is a uncommon alternative for researchers to double-check outcomes of their earlier BAC spaceflight research from 2020 and additional fine-tune suggestions for making certain steady availability of secure water in area.  

As NASA and different organizations ponder longer and extra sophisticated endeavors in area, together with return voyages to the moon and potential journeys to Mars, the problem of water integrity throughout spaceflight is extra urgent than ever. Any water-related mishap throughout prolonged spaceflight is a doubtlessly deadly emergency.

Water: Vessel of sickness and well being

Right here on Earth, contaminated water is the supply of many life-threatening infectious ailments, together with cholera, typhoid fever, enteric salmonellosis and dysentery. A fancy infrastructure has been constructed to make sure the water we’re uncovered to is secure.

Throughout spaceflight, nonetheless — removed from the consolation of our dwelling planet — the significance of safeguarding this treasured useful resource turns into much more essential, and the challenges way more daunting.

Water assets in area are tracked rigorously, together with the recycling, purification and reuse of urine, wastewater and even sweat. Regardless of the extravagant lengths taken to make sure water aboard the ISS is secure, bacterial microbes are tenacious foes and can attempt to discover a footing in water provides or on materials surfaces, the place they’ll multiply. Several types of micro organism can be part of forces to create aggressive biofilms which can be immune to efforts to eradicate them with antimicrobials.

Lab within the sky

The experiments will observe the expansion of E. coli and P. aeruginosa inside specifically designed containers over a 117-day interval aboard the ISS. The research will consider the formation of biofilms when the 2 pathogens are mixed, which is related to how biofilms naturally develop in combined populations. The exams will consider bacterial biofilm improvement throughout an early, center and late part over the course of the spaceflight.

Moreover, among the biofilms will likely be uncovered to silver disinfectant, to see how effectively this addition acts to restrict development and biofilm formation. The outcomes will assist information NASA’s future choices for microbial management of water assets utilizing silver within the water techniques versus iodine, which is the present anti-microbial of alternative.

The researchers may also look at biofilm formation on stainless-steel supplies like these used within the ISS water system to see whether or not biofilm formation is performing to corrode them. A last analysis explores bacterial gene expression throughout spaceflight, shedding gentle on how microgravity and different spaceflight circumstances could also be guiding bacterial habits on the molecular degree.

Challenges for secure water

Aboard the ISS, the Environmental Management and Life Help System makes use of a sophisticated course of to purify water. This intricate process begins with a major filtration step to sift out particles and detritus. Following this therapy, the water flows by way of layers of multi-filtration beds, that are designed to soak up and eradicate each natural and inorganic contaminants. The ultimate stage eradicates unstable natural substances and exterminates any microorganisms current.

Even with such superior life-support mechanisms in place to safeguard the water provide, bacterial populations have confirmed adept at circumventing these limitations, with some establishing resilient biofilms inside the ISS water purification system.

Biofilms current vital international socioeconomic challenges, resulting in in depth well being and industrial points, with monetary repercussions hovering into billions of {dollars} yearly right here on Earth. They’re answerable for clogging oil and chemical processing strains, contaminating invasive medical gadgets like stents, triggering infections and polluting water provides. Moreover, biofilms can aggressively corrode quite a few supplies, together with chrome steel, which is a part of the ISS water system, thereby jeopardizing its integrity.

Though the ISS water harbors lots of the similar microorganisms which can be current in terrestrial consuming water, circumstances in area increase worries that these microorganisms may turn out to be extra harmful. One particular concern is expounded to the results of microgravity — an element that researchers from the identical workforce have discovered to doubtlessly enhance the harmfulness and stress tolerance of sure pathogens.

Alterations of bacterial genes underneath spaceflight circumstances may result in a greater understanding of how biofilms develop with translational potential to manage biofilms on Earth and in area. Such investigations additional underscore the worth of space-based platforms for gaining new insights in life and well being sciences.

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