A completely new bacterial life form that appears to inhabit only space agency ‘clean rooms’ has been classified after more than three years of investigation and analysis.
Microbial lifeforms that can survive and even thrive in extreme environments — known as extremophiles — have become the focus of much research in recent years.
Such extreme-adapted lifeforms are found living in some of the planet’s most challenging environments: in the frigid and high saline reservoirs a mile beneath Antarctic glaciers or living in the deep ocean alongside smoking, sulfur-spewing thermal vents. A few, such as the polyextremophile Deinococcus radiodurans, can withstand hundreds or even thousands of times the radiation dose that would kill any larger animal.
But when we think of an extreme environment we tend not to view being completely “clean” or sterile as one such environment. But that’s exactly the kind of environment astronautical engineers must maintain to protect their space crafts from accidentally contaminating other worlds by allowing microbes to hitch-hike into space.
Space programs must maintain extremely clean (i.e., microbe free) environments in the form of clean rooms which are kept “totally” sterile through a strict protocol. Clean room air is constantly filtered. All surfaces in a clean room are repeatedly scrubbed with alcohol and hydrogen peroxide and then heated to high temperatures than microbes can not tolerate. Persons entering a clean room must wear full coverage (except for the eyes) prophylactic clothing and are even subject to a high-pressure ‘air-blasting” before entering to remove any residual bugs or potential bug-harboring substances that might be present on the body.
For this reason as well as the critical importance of preventing accidental contamination of any probed world, the discovery of any microbial life in a clean room is a matter of great concern. And, if such a microorganism were to be both highly adapted to sterile conditions and a previously unknown life form, the concern is magnified.
A Brief History of a New Bug
Our story begins in 2007 in a clean room at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (Florida). There, NASA engineers were busy making final adjustments to the Mars lander Pheonix prior to its launch. And it was there that the first evidence of this unusual microbe surfaced.
Two years later, in May of 2009, European Space Agency (ESA) engineers working at the agency’s South American site were preparing the Herschel Space Telescope prior to launch on-board an Ariane 5 rocket. They began a concerted search for any contamination in or around the site and found traces of what appeared to be a similar microorganism.
The existence of an organism that could survive such sterilization procedures (in an environment devoid of nutrients) naturally becomes a subject of great scientific curiosity. Following the 2009 discovery, Scientists from NASA and ESA teamed up to investigate the highly unusual bacterial life form.
A Brand New ‘Phoenix’ of a Microbe – Found Nowhere Else (So Far)
Designated Tersicoccus phoenicis (‘tersi’ means ‘clean, ‘coccus’ refers to its spherical shape, and ‘phoencis’ refers to both the Mars lander and the indestructible bird of Greek myth), scientists determined that the bacterium was more unusual than they had thought; it was a new genus (a higher category of taxonomic classification) as well as a new species. The new “extreme” microorganism was described in a paper published in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology this past July.
Parag Vaishampayan, a microbiologist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (who led the team behind the Kennedy Space Center detection) commented:
“This is the first report of bugs isolated in two different clean rooms, and nowhere else.” [quote source]
Microbiologist analyzing the bug found that it shares less than 95% of it genome with its next closest related bacterium. They also characterized the bacterium’s cell wall as having a “unique molecular composition”. This and other unique properties helped classify the bug as a genuinely new type of bacterium.
Big Questions for a Small Life Form
Other questions remain: scientists do not yet know if T. phoenicis lives only in clean rooms or if it is found elsewhere on Earth but has avoided detection up to this point. Its “extreme” adaptation may be the result of a lack of competition. The new bug may not be able to thrive under normal (high microbe diversity) conditions or environments; it dominates only when all other competing microbial life forms are eliminated. So, it may indeed be present in other nutrient and microbe-rich locales but in such small numbers that it goes undetected.
But there is another question of deep concern here that revolves around the issue of “planetary protection”: Has such a life form survived previous clean missions, such as Mars rover missions, or the Pheonix lander mission, and made its way secretively to another world already?
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