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No, bacteria do not mutate into superbugs on the International Space Station

The International Space Station
(NASA)

Bacteria on the International Space Station evolve and change in their strange orbital environment — but according to a new study, they do not seem more dangerous to humans.

That is good news for the astronauts, such as some previous research suggested that space travel might make certain bacteria mutate into strains that are more harmful to people.

“There is a lot of speculation about radiation, microgravity, and the lack of ventilation-and how that may affect living organisms, including bacteria,” lead study author Erica Hartmann, a biological design professor at Northwestern University, said in a statement. “This stressful, difficult conditions,” lead the researchers to wonder if space travel would increase the chance that bacteria can develop into so-called superbugs to survive.

On the basis of the new research, published today (Jan. 8) in the magazine, the world’s largest supplier, “the answer seems to be ‘no,'” Hartmann said.

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In the study, researchers analyzed the DNA of two types of bacteria that had taken a trip to the ISS: Staphylococcus aureus (which can be found on the skin and causes staph infections) and Bacillus cereus (present in the digestive system and the soil, and usually harmless). Both microbes were collected from the environment of the space station and probably hitched a ride into space on the skin of astronauts or to the inside of their body. The results showed that during the returned bacteria had mutated differently than their Earthly counterparts, they had not developed any of the obvious genetic features of superbugs. (Superbugs are bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics.) [Over Earth: Day & Night from ISS]

On Earth, the researchers said, and bacteria routinely fall off of the human body, they prefer to inhabit and undergo changes to adapt to non-living surfaces. But the researchers are especially worried that the close quarters of spacecraft, where humans and bacteria share the same air and small spaces for months, can lead to dangerous changes.

It seems that, while the bacteria did change, to adapt to the space, which changes do not produce any deviations which they produce diseases that are more contagious or difficult to treat.

This is good news for long-term spaceflight. While NASA’s strict quarantine procedures for the start of communicable diseases in the area are exceedingly rare, the prospect of an outbreak in a sealed spacecraft to accelerate in the direction of Mars remains alarming. Until now, though, it seems that there is nothing about the space and the environment itself is working to make that bacterial risk more dire — even if there are other health problems to worry about.

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Originally published on Live Science.

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