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Tenacious bacteria flourish on space station, but they're no more dangerous than Earth bugs

Burkholderia cepacia, one of the bacterial species found on the potable water dispenser on the International Space Station.
Burkholderia cepacia, one of the bacterial species found on the potable water dispenser on the International Space Station. (Image credit: Janice Haney Carr USCDCP)

It turns out that bacteria contaminating the drinking water on the International Space Station aren't any more dangerous than bacteria here on Earth. 

Bacteria have flourished in space, growing in the potable water dispenser on the space station. But the two species of bacteria thriving in this dispenser aren't any more harmful  than closely related microbes here on Earth, a new study has found. 

In 2009, NASA installed the water dispenser on the space station, but soon after, samples taken from the device showed that bacteria had taken up residence in the water. The two strains of bacteria — Burkholderia cepacia and Burkholderia contaminans — contaminated not only the dispenser, but the drinking water itself. 

Related: Astronauts Identify Mystery Microbes in Space for the 1st Time

These space microbes are part of a group of related Burkholderia bacteria species which, on Earth, have caused lung infections and have been particularly difficult to kill using traditional techniques. While astronauts on the space station have regularly flushed the dispenser with an extra-strength cleaning solution, bacteria have remained on the device, according to a statement

Researchers in this new study, who sequenced the genomes of bacterial strains collected from the dispenser from 2010 to 2014, found that all of the B. cepacia and B. contaminans bacterial strains were very similar and most likely came from bacteria that were on the device before it launched to space. 

In the study, the researchers found that the bacteria living on the space station were no more dangerous than similar microbes on Earth, and if an astronaut were to get a bacterial infection from these microbes on the dispenser, it would be treatable with antibiotics, according to the statement. 

"Based on the information presented here, it seems likely that the two populations of Burkholderia present in the ISS PWS are not more virulent than those that might be encountered on planet," the researchers said in the study

The work was detailed in a study published Feb. 19 in the journal PLOS ONE.  

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Chelsea Gohd

Chelsea Gohd joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2018 and returned as a Staff Writer in 2019. After receiving a B.S. in Public Health, she worked as a science communicator at the American Museum of Natural History and even wrote an installation for the museum's permanent Hall of Meteorites. Chelsea has written for publications including Scientific American, Discover Magazine Blog, Astronomy Magazine, Live Science, All That is Interesting, AMNH Microbe Mondays blog, The Daily Targum and Roaring Earth. When not writing, reading or following the latest space and science discoveries, Chelsea is writing music and performing as her alter ego Foxanne (@foxannemusic). You can follow her on Twitter @chelsea_gohd.