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Astronauts Have Identified Unknown Microbes in Space For The First Time


Thanks to the Genes in Space-3 project, NASA astronauts and biochemists have identified microbes aboard the space station for the very first time. These turned out to be ordinary microbes that are commonly found where humans live. But now that the technique has been shown to work in space, there's no telling what astronauts might find next.

Previously, the only way to identify microbes on the International Space Station was to send them back to Earth for testing. Microbes had been sequenced on board the ISS, but those samples had been prepared on Earth. There was no way to find something in space and genetically identify it straight away.

"We have had contamination in parts of the station where fungi was seen growing or biomaterial has been pulled out of a clogged waterline, but we have no idea what it is until the sample gets back down to the lab," Wallace said in April. There are a lot more microbes out there in space than you may think. We do our best to sterilise space equipment here on Earth before launch, but even the most extreme techniques can only reduce the number of microbes to 300 per square metre.

Given that microbes have demonstrated the ability to survive in the vacuum of space, having been found living outside the ISS, being able to quickly identify them will help rule out - or confirm - whether they're Earth microbes or not. (So far, all microbes found in and on the ISS have been terrestrial in origin.)

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