Scientists Study How to Kill Germs in International Space Station

Cosmonaut Sergey Prokopyev flings a Sirius nano-satellite into orbit from the International Space Station on Aug. 15, 2018. (Image via NASA)

(CN) – Just because astronauts live and work 254 miles above the Earth’s surface aboard the International Space Station doesn’t mean they’re immune to food poisoning and superbug infections.

Persistent antibiotic resistant infections, commonly referred to as superbugs, can cause major issues for hospitals on Earth but are especially worrisome for astronauts who have weakened immune systems while aboard the ISS and are more susceptible to bacterial infections.

In a new study published Monday in scientific journal Frontiers in Microbiology, researchers say coating surfaces with a silver- and ruthenium-based antimicrobial can dramatically reduce the spread of infections by cutting back on the amount of bacteria that collects on surfaces and help astronauts in future space missions.

On the ISS, astronauts live and work in a unique weak gravity environment and are intermittently exposed to solar and cosmic radiation. The potential for infections increases with the duration of their missions. According to NASA, there are three to six crew members who typically live aboard the ISS for about six months.

Superbugs are bacteria that have become resistant to antibiotics. With limited supplies on the ISS, viral infections and outbreaks are a major concern, especially in cramped quarters.

In their study, researchers examined a toilet door on the ISS. They then examined how silver- and ruthenium-based antimicrobial coating, called AGXX, did on cutting down bacteria.

Researcher Elisabeth Grohmann from Beuth University of Applied Sciences Berlin said the coating is conditioned by a vitamin derivative and kills all kinds of bacteria as well as certain fungi, yeasts and viruses.

“The effects are similar to bleach – except the coating is self-regenerating so it never gets used up,” Grohmann said.

The study examined how bacteria died away on treated surfaces. Some of those included Bacillus cereus, a bacterium that causes foodborne illness or Enterococcus faecalis, a superbug that can cause life-threatening infections in humans.

In the study, all the viruses were tested against 15 different antibiotics, with 7 different antibiotic resistances found within 6 months, 13 after 12 months and after 19 months the number of resistances equaled the number of antibiotics after six months.

Eighty percent of the bacteria were eliminated when compared to surfaces of just bare steel that were not treated with the AGXX.

Bacterial isolates, the pure strain of bacteria that have separated from a bacterial culture, were able to form immunity-evading slimy coatings, and most were resistant to three antibiotics.

“Immunosuppression, bacterial virulence and therefore infection risk increase with duration of spaceflight. We must continue to develop new approaches to combat bacterial infections if we are to attempt longer missions to Mars and beyond,” Grohmann said.

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