Microbial test unveils fungus problem at NASA lab

New study has revealed that a NASA meteorite curation lab at the Johnson Space Center in Texas is clean, but not sterile

A research presented at the 49th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference revealed that the NASA meteorite curation lab at the Johnson Space Center in Texas and the filter used to purify N2 are clean, but not sterile.

The lab, which is preparing to receive samples from Mars and the carbon-rich asteroid Bennu, is contaminated with an abundance of terrestrial fungus, mostly the common genus Penicillium.

Scientists at the NASA Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation office, which holds samples from the moon, meteorites, and other samples from space, took a closer look at one of their labs as part of a curation initiative.

These facilities conform to ISO Class 6 cleanroom standards. However, samples from the floor, a table, the inside of a laminar flow bench used to process meteorites and a nitrogen filter, all produced fungal growths.

As part of the study, a team of scientists was able to cultivate healthy fungal colonies from environments that had been isolated for circa 30 years. The fungal counts in the samples are said to be far higher than those of bacteria and accounting for between 83% – 97% of a Colony Forming Unit (CFU).

The team revealed, however, that this is the first study to focus on the fungus, so the scientists suggested that some fungal species may have been missed previously. They also pointed out that fungi may prefer conditions at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) rather than at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) or Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

The research is available on the Advancing Space Science and Technology website.