Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria Found Aboard International Space Station

When most people imagine disasters wiping out astronauts in space, it usually looks like Alien or Apollo 13. According to a new study, however, it could look a lot more like Michael Crichton’s Andromeda Strain: strains of enterobacter bacteria have been discovered aboard the International Space Station, and though they’re currently harmless, they’re resistant to common antibiotics and have the potential to change into a new form that can infect humans.

According to Science Daily, the first author of the study, Dr. Nitin Singh, was quick to point out that although the bacteria “potentially pose important health considerations for future missions… the strains found on the ISS were not virulent, which means they are not an active threat to human health, but something to be monitored.” 

Bacteria are nothing new to the ISS—NASA periodically takes samples of them from various locations around the living quarters to gauge their growth and development, and Russian cosmonauts even found some clinging to the outer hull of the station. In fact, NASA has purposefully sent a far deadlier bacteria to the ISS than anything we’ve found there naturally. Still, the discovery of these strains of enterobacter are concerning because they can handle some of the most popular and effective antibiotics (such as cefazolin, cefoxitin, oxacillin, penicillin and rifampin), which would be among the first lines of defense for a sick astronaut.

Allowing drug-resistant bacteria to breed isn’t a good idea, especially when NASA predicts that there’s a 79% chance that some of these strains will develop into a pathogen that can affect humans. Though according to microbiologist Kasthuri Venkateswaran, there’s still a lot more to figure out about these strains: “Whether or not an opportunistic pathogen like E. bugandensis causes disease and how much of a threat it is, depends on a variety of factors, including environmental ones. Further in vivo studies are needed to discern the impact that conditions on the ISS, such as microgravity, other space, and spacecraft-related factors, may have on pathogenicity and virulence.”

If you think keeping pandemics from breaking out aboard the ISS is difficult, consider the monumental challenge of keeping Earth bacteria from infecting other planets and wiping out the life that may already exist there. Even Elon Musk’s famous Tesla Roadster could be a deadly vector if it crashes into Mars.