Reprinted by permission of McGill University Office for Science and Society.
In order to prevent our organic matter from infiltrating other planets, and vice versa, NASA aims to provide what they call “planetary protection.” If a bacterium from Earth made it to Mars it may severely hinder any chance we have of finding native Martian life, so NASA takes every precaution to prevent cross-planetary contamination.
Hence the need for cleanrooms, inside which visitors must wear a face mask, hood, booties and coveralls, and still can’t come closer than several feet away from the probes and rovers contained within.
But despite everyone’s best efforts, some bacteria will always be present. Specifically, the bacteria that are the most hardy, having survived many rounds of chemical and UV cleansings.
In an environment that clean, however, these bacteria can’t dine on their usual fare of decaying plant and animal matter. So, in order to survive, they’ve actually developed the ability to eat the cleaning materials!
One study showed that Acinetobacter bacteria, a particularly persistent and troublesome bacterium for hospitals, is able to survive on only ethanol and can degrade cleaning products. These troublesome microbes are resistant to radiation, hydrogen peroxide, high pressures and high temperatures.
In 2014 Koichi Wakata, a Japanese astronaut, proved that microbes are making it to space. He swabbed fifteen surfaces around the International Space Station and brought them back to Earth. From these swabs more than 12 000 microbes were identified!
It is important to remember though that the vast majority of these, just like the majority of microbes on your skin, phone and counter, are totally harmless. If even NASA’s cleanrooms can’t be microbe free, your home will never be either, and that’s ok.
The original McGill University OSS post can be found here.