Microbial stowaways found in space water

– Oct. 28, 2019

Bacteria have been found in the drinking water supply of the International Space Station (ISS), but this doesn’t directly present a problem for the astronauts.

Mains water contains few bacteria. However, in the course of time it is possible for common types of bacteria found in ground water or surface water to start growing on the insides of water pipes. These are always harmless types, because water companies carefully filter out any bacteria that may cause disease. A layered accumulation of microbes in water mains or underground pipes is also known as a biofilm. 

Seen any good biofilms?

The researchers identified the six most frequently occurring bacteria in the water system of the ISS. It turned out that these six species could form robust biofilms together. The only species that, on removal, sometimes caused the biofilm to collapse was Chryseobacterium gleum. Through this, the researchers once again demonstrated that life in biofilms in water pipes is a successful form of cohabitation. It also showed that it doesn’t really matter which of the most common bacteria species cooperate – the biofilm will still develop.

Pure research

Drinking water is already a scarce commodity on Earth, but this is even more true for the ISS. The space station has an advanced water purification system, which purifies urine, sweat and waste water and extracts condensation from the air. After purification, the system produces drinking water that is even cleaner than the water in most countries on our planet. 

The researchers recommend that the six bacteria species found in the ISS can be used as a standard model for researching biofilms in drinking water systems. They issue this recommendation because these six species are widespread, harmless and important for the formation of biofilms. Knowledge about the formation and breakdown of biofilms is useful for preventing possible pathogens (disease-causing organisms) from establishing themselves. So this discovery shows that something like microbiological space research can also be useful for our drinking water supplies on Earth.

Would you like to find out more about what it’s like to be an astronaut? Visit the Planetarium in the ARTIS Park.