Bacterial impact on astronauts' health and spacecraft hardware

Bacterial impact on astronauts' health and spacecraft hardware in confined space capsules

For future manned missions (i.e. a lunar base or a mission to Mars), the rescue mission with a fast return to Earth is no longer possible. Consequently, the microbial quality control of the atmosphere, surfaces, water, food and waste reservoirs has been reinforced. Micro-organisms that are present in space ships or space stations could be of danger to the crew or could cause damage to materials. The study of bacterial activity under space conditions is therefore highly important for the early detection of changes in bacteria with medical or environmental consequences.

For the above reasons, and taking advantage of the ISS as a 'test bench', ESA has decided to set-up a sampling campaign of the ISS and to develop a Microbial Detection System, with the scientific support of SCK•CEN. The SCK•CEN team analyses on a regular basis the microbial contamination aboard the International Space Station to assess the impact of bacteria on the health of the astronauts and on the integrity of spatial hardware. In addition, the team at SCK•CEN works in close collaboration with the Russian institute IBMP and together we are studying the microbial populations aboard the ISS and their changes (1) in the air and on surfaces, and (2) in and on the human crew.


Our team can build on the research experience from the ground-based case study using the “Concordia” base on Antarctica (a semi-closed environment, with shifts of crew alternating for 5-6 months at a time and prolonged confinement during winter months). The Concordia base will allow us to map microbial dynamics (spreading off cells and their genes) in a confined environment from start over several years of hotspots that are crucial for bio contamination (biodegradation, bio corrosion) under environmental conditions (airflow, humidity, temperature, etc. ), promoting microbial spreading or activity.

Space exploration implies traveling to as well as descending on new planets or other astrological objects. One important issue is the discovery of life on those other worlds. If an organism is found, it must be ascertained whether the organism is indigenous to that planet or if it is an Earthly "hitchhiker" from the current mission or a previous mission. It is of utmost importance to protect other solar system bodies from biological contamination originating from Earth (termed "forward contamination") as well as protecting Earth from any type of extraterrestrial contamination (termed "back contamination").
Therefore scientists need to ensure the complete disinfection of instruments and objects using microbial disinfection systems and protocols that will come in contact with these solar system bodies.
Sampling from extraterrestrial objects likewise need to be performed with specially adapted protocols and instruments in such a way that the sample, once brought back, will not be contaminated during manhandling upon return, or that a life form collected would escape and contaminate Earth.

For all these projects not only the bacteria itself are characterized, but special attention is given to their Mobile Genetic Elements (MGE) such as plasmids, transposons, bacteriophages and genomic islands, which may carry pathogenic or other genetic determinants that could jeopardize the health of the crew or affect hardware.

Projects & Partners

SCK•CEN participates in several Space Research projects in co-operation with various Belgian and European universities and industrial partners which are financially supported by the European Space Agency (ESA) as well as by the Belgian Federal Science Policy (Belspo) through following projects: MISSEX – 'Microbial ISS gene Exchange' project (Prodex agreement 2006-2008)

In collaboration with: Prof. J. Mahillon from UCL in Belgium, Prof. A. Toussaint from ULB in Belgium, Prof. L. Van Melderen from ULB in Belgium, Dr. E. Grohmann from TUB in Germany, Dr. K. Venkateswaran from JPL-NASA in USA, Dr. M. Ott from JSC-NASA in USA

Contact: Dr. Van Houdt Rob