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Detecting bacteria in space: The good, the bad and the unknown

a problem organism is similar but not identical to the organism you are testing for, the test will show up negative," Fox said. "However, with our system, astronauts would be able to pinpoint an organism's family and significantly narrow down the possibilities of its identity."

Once Fox and Willson's device identifies the problem organism, scientists can predict the bacteria's source, like a faulty air filter or a water purifier, and fix the defective instrument for future missions.

Any kind of bacterial buildup should be avoided in the spacecraft.

"We are not specifically looking for deadly mutated bacteria," Fox said. "We are more concerned about preventing everyday infections because, if you get sick in space, you don't have a hospital around the corner for treatment. Our goal is to avoid infections with routine monitoring to keep bacteria levels low in the first place."

The routine monitoring of bacterial levels is the second component of Fox and Willson's research. Because of limited laboratory space and chemical availability in spacecrafts, they are designing an easy-to-use monitoring method for bacteria levels. Astronauts would filter the air or water, or swab a surface, to obtain the bacterial sample, and then they would test the sample for high levels of certain organisms that would indicate contamination.

"The tool will provide an early warning that the air or water purification system might not be working properly, allowing for needed repairs," said Fox. "The routine monitoring system and the bacterial identification device will help astronauts stay healthy during their time in space."


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Contact: Kathy Major
major@bcm.tmc.edu
713-798-5893
National Space Biomedical Research Institute
13-Nov-2002


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