Living in Space Doesn't Turn Bacteria into Killer Superbugs, Study Says

Bacteria on the ISS may have gotten hardier—but we still have the upper hand for now.

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NASA/Crew of STS-132

Don’t worry about the tiny stowaways on the International Space Station—they mean you no harm. A new study out of Northwestern University found that, despite our horror sci-fi fears, bacteria in space don't mutate in strange and dangerous ways.

For new research published in , the Northwestern team looked at the hardy microbes that made it to the International Space Station. There was some concern that mutations from their earth-bound counterparts was making them more resistant to antibiotics.

"Does the environment select for superbugs? The answer appears to be 'no.'"

The team concluded those fears are mostly unfounded. Instead, the mutated genes are more likely the bacteria adapting in minor ways to the extreme environment, where, for one thing, radiation is more persistent. None of the new genes expressed had any effect on human health.

“There has been a lot of speculation about radiation, microgravity, and the lack of ventilation and how that might affect living organisms, including bacteria,” said Erica Hartmann, a Northwestern researcher who led the study, in a press statement. “These are stressful, harsh conditions. Does the environment select for superbugs because they have an advantage? The answer appears to be ‘no.’”

Scientists have a host of questions about living in space that must be answered before people consider very long-duration trips off-planet, much less trying to live on the moon or another world. Most of those are focused on us: Can people have sex and give birth in orbit or on another planet? How will our crops grow?

But equally important is how the off-earth environment impacts the microorganisms in our bodies and all around us. There is a possibility of bacteria turning into “superbugs” in the space environment, where they might endanger astronauts on long-duration spaceflights, whether it’s a future space station, a moon base, or a Mars visit. Good news, then, that that doesn't appear to be the case.

So for now, we’re safe to travel with our bacterial overlords to space—they’re not ready for a mutiny quite yet.

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