In researching previous studies conducted on microbes in space for Project MERCURRI, I ran across an interesting microbiology diversity study done on European Spacecraft-Associated (ESA) clean rooms in the Herschel Space Observatory.
Historically, clean rooms are supposedly “sterile” environments that are used for the building and maintenance of spacecrafts, as directed by the UN’s Outer Space planetary protection treaty in 1967. In this 2012 study, Stieglmeier et al. assessed the microbial diversity of one of these European clean rooms using qPCR, 16S gene cloning, and “ESA’s standard procedure for the determination of bioburden,” and found that these hot (about 80 degrees Celsius) and low moisture environments select for microorganisms that might have the capability to grow on Mars. Of the several microbes that they found, many of them could not even be identified or grown in culture even with the several different methods that they used–and Stieglmeier and colleagues attribute this to a confirmation of the limits of today’s current microbiological techniques and technologies. At the most basic level, even though Stieglmeier et al.’s study can be directly applied to current extraterrestrial focuses in man-space flight, search for microbial life, and travel to other planets, it can also be used to look at the microbiological diversity found on Earth’s own hospitals, pharmaceutical, and chemical facilities’ clean rooms. In that, clean rooms might not be as “clean” as we might think them to be.
Ruth Lee is an undergraduate in Jonathan Eisen’s lab who is currently working on Project MERCURRI.