Opinion: Life, but not as we know it

A new microbe found in two NASA cleanrooms seems able to survive the harshest conditions

Hilary Ayshford
Managing Editor

Much has been said and written over the years about microbial resistance, but a bug discovered in one of the most sterile locations on earth takes the resilience of these life forms to a new level.

Dubbed Tersicoccus phoenicis, the bacteria were found in two cleanrooms on different continents – one in Florida where NASA’s Mars Phoenix Lander was constructed and the second at the European Space Agency’s facility in Kourou, French Guiana.

T. phoenicis shares less than 95% of its genetic sequence with its closest bacterial relative, leading scientists to declare that it was not just a new species, but also a new genus. How it came to be in the cleanrooms in the first place, how it manages to survive the stringent sterilisation procedures and how it can sustain itself with levels of nutrition close to zero are questions that will exercise scientific minds for years.

One theory is that the microbe is non-competitive and therefore does not thrive in normal conditions, becoming prevalent only when all other bacteria have been eliminated. Or perhaps it was there in the background all the time, but was not identified among the overwhelming numbers of other microbes.

And just because it has been found only in cleanrooms does not mean that it doesn't exist elsewhere on the planet.

The space industry's ambition is to find life among the stars; ironically, new life was there all the time right under its nose.

On behalf of everyone at Cleanroom Technology, I would like to send all our readers and website visitors season's greetings and wish you a happy, healthy and prosperous year in 2014.

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