Thursday, 17 August 2017

Studying fungi to keep space travelers safe


Human presence in closed habitats that may one day be used to explore other planets is associated with changes in the composition of the fungal community - the mycobiome - that grows on surfaces inside the habitat, according to a new study.

Dr Kasthuri Venkateswaran, Senior Research Scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, and corresponding author of the study said: "Our study is the first report on the mycobiome of a simulated habitat meant for the future human habitation of other planets. We used the Inflatable Lunar/Mars Analog Habitat (ILMAH), a unique, simulated closed environment that mimics the conditions found on the International Space Station and possible human habitats on other planets. We showed that the overall fungal diversity changed when humans were present."

The researchers found that certain kinds of fungi -- including known pathogens that can colonize the human body and cause allergies, asthma and skin infections -- increased in number while humans were living inside the ILMAH. Prolonged stays in closed habitats might be stressful for inhabitants and thus lead to decreased immune response, making people more vulnerable to opportunistic pathogens like fungi.

Dr Venkateswaran said: "Fungi are extremophiles that can survive harsh conditions and environments like deserts, caves or nuclear accident sites, and they are known to be difficult to eradicate from other environments including indoor and closed spaces. Characterizing and understanding possible changes to, and survival of, fungal species in environments like the ILMAH is of high importance since fungi are not only potentially hazardous to the inhabitants but could also deteriorate the habitats themselves."
Knowing how fungal communities change in the presence of humans is thus necessary for the development of appropriate countermeasures to maintain habitats like the ILMAH or the ISS and to protect the health of the people who live there.

See:

A. Blachowicz, T. Mayer, M. Bashir, T. R. Pieber, P. De León, K. Venkateswaran. Human presence impacts fungal diversity of inflated lunar/Mars analog habitatMicrobiome, 2017; 5 (1) DOI: 10.1186/s40168-017-0280-8

Posted by Dr. Tim Sandle