The net-garbled furore over fungi growing on the ISS space station has been dragging on for a while. The information is detailed, to a point, but not detailed enough, and better still, not official, so nobody has to do anything about it.
There’s a lot of news about the space fungi, and that’s the good news. The other news is that things could get a lot worse, soon, and for the future. Let’s start with the quality of information available. The net takeaway from the “news” is that the fungi are aggressive, there’s a lot of them, and that microorganisms can live in space.
Fun so far, isn’t it? God knows what is growing away, damaging equipment, eating metal… It’d be a good science fiction movie, but this is supposedly real.
The internet has again turned everything in to a mix of fact and what looks very like fiction. (Thanks again, guys, you’re a great help. You could be the Breitbart of science, the way you’re going. Shut up if you’re not sure, and if you are sure, be clear.)
Established facts so far:
- 200 known organisms can exist in space, including our old friends, the pneumococci.
- The Soviet Mir space station supposedly had a ferocious mix of bacterial and fungal growths. They grew with exceptional speed and volume.
- NASA acknowledges the existence of the various microfauna and flora, but isn’t committing to any statements so far, quite rightly.
- The fungi are an operational problem, and have even managed to block water lines on the ISS. NASA is analysing data.
- The survivability of fungi isn’t in question. Other tests have proven that some species of Antarctic fungi could effectively “live on Mars”.
- Pathogen checks have been done on the ISS for the last decade, to deal with human microorganisms in the enclosed environment.
- They’re very hard/impossible to eradicate.
Unproven facts and fictions:
Fungi are eating Mars rovers. (Looked like a natural candidate for Photoshop to me, but some alleged growth patterns are similar to terrestrial fungi. See the Soviet Mir link above for the video at the bottom. Not entirely convincing, but I’m a fungi buff, too, so nice try, even if not true. You need to know quite a bit about fungi to do that.)
The fungi come from space. Maybe so, in fact that’s a theory for the beginning of life on Earth. Even so, you’d have to do some pretty fancy genetic sequencing to prove it, and that’s not happening so far. Space fungi, if they are, could tell us more about biological adaption in space than thousands of years of research. It’d be a real Rosetta Stone for multiple issues. The gene sequencing could also fill in a few blanks, too, maybe?
The fungi use acetic acid to dissolve tungsten? Huh? Acetic acid, aka vinegar, is great for breaking down things, and killing moulds in bathrooms, but tungsten? Fungi use enzymes, and enzymes which destroy metal could be called overkill. They don’t seem to do a lot of that on Earth, either. The other side of this very skeptical view is that there are obvious stains and visible effects on surfaces on the ISS. How? Seems like it’s a subject well worth exploring.
Fungus and fungal problems for the future
OK, so that was 400 or so words of semi-information for you. You’ll notice I’m not too impressed with the standard of information or depth of research. Looks to me like much more work has to go in to analysis, and much less speculation. If this is the real deal, the first case of managing biological hazards in space, kindly take it seriously.
Irritating as some of this stuff is, none of it is entirely out of the ballpark. Fungi and some types of algae are the undisputed toughest organisms on Earth. They’ve survived all the major extinctions, every single one. They are incredibly efficient biologically, and can break down practically any type of organic or inorganic material. If anything’s going to survive anywhere, the fungi are prime candidates.
They can live through heat, cold, UV, etc., in fact they’re incredibly well adapted to do just that. If anything’s alive on Mars, nobody in bio science will be too surprised if it’s this range of organisms.
Now the problems:
- Point(s) of origin, Earth or space, or both? The idea of taking some overachieving, potentially dangerous buts and fungi in to space where they become even worse isn’t appealing. Decontamination methods will need to be developed, and they’ll add to the load of space exploration. (There is absolutely nothing to be said for accumulating vast amounts of toxic contaminants in flight.)
- Terrestrial microorganisms travelling in space naturally have affinities with Earth-based life. So when away from home, where’s the most likely place for them to set up shop? Anywhere near anything terrestrial, of course.
- Does this mean humans will take their pathogens with them wherever they go? It might. It might be worse, too; multigenerational fungi and bacteria could become omni-resistant to decontamination, “superbugs”, and progressively more virulent. The trouble with this situation is that humans would make a great vector for just about every known disease. (There is a precedent for this; the housefly. Flies followed humans around the world. There’s no reason to believe microorganisms would object to a free ride, either.)
- Are our pathogens toxic to other life? Probably, and that’s despite total alien-ness; super aggressive organisms are chemically They don’t have to find a biological dating agency to hook up with something and cause chaos. See what a fungus blight did to potatoes in Ireland during the Famine. Contact with humans could be fatal. Space travel may bring literal tides of microfauna in to space. If so, and the microfauna is dangerous, humans needn’t expect to be thanked for it. After all, we do know how dangerous some of these organisms can be on Earth.
- Microorganisms are highly adaptive. We also know that these organisms adapt rapidly to any hostile environment. Ironically, we could use fungi as explorers, just to see how they cope with new environments. The obvious issue is that they’ll adapt to any countermeasures as quickly as usual, or perhaps even more quickly. (Why does nobody do generational studies on resistance, to see how the damn things adapt, by the way? Would have saved a lot of trouble with the superbugs.)
Nobody’s even mentioned viruses, yet, a substrate of the likely micro ecology on the ISS. No phages? If not, why not?
So – Is humanity going to emerge from Earth, bringing every known disease and pathogen with it? Or is this going to be another case of just blunder along, bringing plagues with the explorers? Great image for humanity’s first outings in to space, isn’t it?
This is a real challenge. Even if it’s only 1% of the possible problems as outlined, they’re still potentially huge problems.
Ironically, some years ago I did a book which included Martian pathogens as part of the storyline, terrestrial microfauna which isolated a Martian colony.
The book, of course, was ignored, as usual. Pity, because it was so much fun to write.To hell with you alleged literati. If you can’t be bothered reading a fun book, I don’t want to know you.
(I can’t begin to tell you what I think of a society which doesn’t read, and usually doesn’t understand what it reads.) Nice to know my storyline has some vindication, though.