Microbiology and Biosafety in Space

Rocket science is synonymous with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A little known fact is that life science also plays a crucial role at NASA by ensuring the health of the astronauts and a successful human space flight program. Microbiologists, immunologists, biochemists, chemists, and toxicologists are among the many life scientists actively involved in crew health protection and environmental monitoring onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

I have worked as a microbiologist at NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas for over seven years. I am the lead in the Environmental Microbiology Laboratory section and also serve as the Executive Officer on the Biosafety Review Board at JSC.

To ensure the environment in the ISS does not pose any microbiological threats to the astronauts, routine air, surface, and water microbiology samples are collected. In‐flight analyses of the air and surface samples are culture‐based and semi‐quantitative. In‐flight analyses of the water samples include heterotrophic plate count (HPC) and coliform bacteria detection. The samples are also returned to the ground by the Space Shuttles or Russian Space Vehicles for microbial identification by traditional biochemical and molecular methods. Microorganisms that have been recovered from air and surface samples include benign bacteria and fungi of skin and environmental origins such as Staphylococcus species, Micrococcus species, Bacillus species, Cladosporium species, Aspergillus species, and Penicillium species. ISS potable water samples have been found to contain common waterborne bacteria such as Ralstonia species, Burkholderia species, and Cupriavidus species. No coliform bacteria have ever been recovered from the ISS potable water samples.

Exciting biomedical research has been taking place aboard the ISS since its inception. Payload experiments containing bacteria, fungi, animals, plants, toxins, recombinant DNA, and mammalian cell lines are routinely flown to the ISS. In order to identify and implement the appropriate hazard controls for bio hazardous materials to be utilized on the ISS, thorough risk assessments on the biological materials must be performed prior to launch. All ISS‐bound payload experiments containing biological materials are assessed by the Biosafety Review Board (BRB) at JSC in support of the Payload Safety Review Panel’s (PSRP) overall safety assessment. The JSC BRB is the equivalent of an Institutional Biosafety Committee. The BRB is composed of a team of biosafety professionals, microbiologists, cell biologists, physicians, industrial hygienists, and safety professionals to assess the wide range of bio hazardous materials. The criteria for assessing bio hazardous materials include but are not limited to the nature of the agent, the infectious dosage, the amount of the agent present, the route of infection, and the hazards associated with the experimental protocols. All identified bio hazardous materials are assigned a JSC biosafety level (BSL). The BSL designation is used by the Payload Safety Review Panel at JSC to assign level(s) of containment necessary for spaceflight.

In space, the containment of biological hazards in payload experiments faces unique constraints such as fluid dynamics in zero gravity and inadequate space to accommodate a good‐sized biological safety cabinet. Given these unique constraints, emphasis is placed on engineering controls designed to minimize breach of containment and reduce the astronauts’ exposure to hazardous biological materials. Each level of containment assigned by the PSRP has to pass stringent pressure, vibration, and leak test prior to launch. The ultimate goal is to prevent any bio hazardous incident that may endanger flight crews and vehicle integrity. Disinfectants and personal protective equipment are also readily available for crew use.

With a comprehensive environmental microbiology monitoring program and an in‐depth risk assessment process on biological payloads, the ISS is a safe environment for the astronauts to live in and to conduct meaningful biomedical research.

Mr. Wong is a Senior Scientist, Enterprise Advisory Services Inc., Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX. He received his NRCM Registered Microbiologist certification in Clinical and Public Health Microbiology in 2003 and his Specialist Microbiologist certification in Biological Safety Microbiology in 2009.

Copyright© National Registry of Certified Microbiologists. Reprinted from The Loop, 2010, Issue 4.