NASA scientists find new microbe in spacecraft cleanrooms

The berry-shaped bug survives on hardly any nutrients

A microbiologist collects a swab sample from the floor of a spacecraft assembly cleanroom at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A new microbe has been discovered by a NASA microbiologist in spacecraft cleanrooms in Florida and South America.

The microbe survives on very few nutrients and is resistant to stressors such as drying, chemical cleaning, or UV treatments that would kill other microbes.

NASA cleanrooms are some of the cleanest in the world, with fewer microbes living in them than in almost any other environment on Earth. They are frequently tested for organisms, bacteria and other living things for a variety of reasons, but the surveys are important for knowing what might hitch a ride into space. If extraterrestrial life is ever found, it would be readily checked against the census of a few hundred types of microbes detected in spacecraft cleanrooms.

'We want to have a better understanding of these bugs, because the capabilities that adapt them for surviving in cleanrooms might also let them survive on a spacecraft,' explained microbiologist Parag Vaishampayan of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, California. 'This particular bug survives with almost no nutrients.'

The berry-shaped microbe is so different from any other known bacteria that it has been classified not only as a new species, but also as a new genus.

It has been called Tersicoccus phoenicis, which is a combination of Greek and Latin words meaning 'clean' and 'berry'. The phoenicis part is after NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, the spacecraft being prepared for launch in 2007 when the bacterium was first collected by test-swabbing the floor in the Florida cleanroom.

Some other microbes have been discovered in a spacecraft cleanroom and found nowhere else, but none previously had been found in two different cleanrooms and nowhere else.

Vaishampayan said: 'We find a lot of bugs in cleanrooms because we are looking so hard to find them there. The same bug might be in the soil outside the cleanroom but we wouldn't necessarily identify it there because it would be hidden by the overwhelming numbers of other bugs.'

Ongoing research with Tersicoccus phoenicis is aimed at understanding possible ways to control it in spacecraft cleanrooms and fully sequencing its DNA.

This microscopic image shows dozens of individual bacterial cells of the recently discovered species Tersicoccus phoenicis. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech