Scientists are considering the implications of an “aggressive space fungus” identified on the outside of the Russian space station Mir.
Patches of the green and black fungus have been discovered behind control panels, in the ship’s air conditioner, communications unit, and on many other surfaces. Not only was the fungus growing everywhere, the patches proved difficult to eradicate.
According to Russian microbiologist Natalia Novikova, there is the potential that in the thick radiation of space, the fungi could mutate into a more virulent threat – possibly causing harm to space travelers with already weakened immune systems, or even brought back to Earth. Organisms like fungus secrete a wide range of corrosive agents like acetic acid, which can damage metal, glass, and other equipment, and even releases toxins into the environment for humans to absorb.
The havoc wreaked by fungal infections could provide an explanation as to why electronics fail more often than they should, and why famous landmarks like the Taj Mahal and the Acropolis are suffering from the effects of microbes in acid rain. Mold has caused problems on Earth for years – and NASA is starting to see the space fungi issue as a serious concern.
“(Spacecraft) are closed systems, and there is very little room for error,” said Ralph Mitchell, a professor of applied biology at Harvard who has been working with NASA to address the threat. “Within days, all of the astronauts share all of the same microflora … like children in kindergarten.”
Mitchell’s experiments for NASA involved observing the behaviour of fungus placed on plastic and metal surfaces. The plastics bubbled, released fumes, and broke apart. Fungi ate through the metal, creating microscopic fissures and pits that weakened the surface.
“In space, these problems could multiply. The increased radiation could encourage harmful mutations, and since astronauts are already facing physical stresses like weightlessness, psychological pressure, and insomnia, which all contribute to a compromised immune system. This could cause significant problems,” said Dr. William Shearer, a professor of pediatrics and immunology at the Baylor College of Medicine and the immunology team leader with the National Space Biomedical Research Institute.
While there is no evidence that fungi have contributed to any health issues among NASA’s astronauts or threatened the integrity of the station’s systems, NASA has stepped up its inspections policies to attempt to mitigate any potential problems.
“Because of this issue on Mir, it has led us to be more aware of the need to do these inspections more frequently,” said NASA spokesman Kyle Herring.
The other side of this discovery, though, is that fungi could also potentially be grown and harvested as a potential fresh food source for space explorers. According to research conducted by New York’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, findings have show that fungi are able to “harness” the energy given off by radioactive materials.
“Since ionizing radiation is prevalent in outer space, astronauts might be able to rely on fungi as an inexhaustible food source on long missions or for colonizing other planets,” said Ekaterina Dadachova, nuclear medicine specialist with the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, noting that the process would be similar to how green plants use chlorophyll to harness energy from sunlight.
While these findings do not mean fungi are capable of “eating” radioactive matter and somehow cleanse it, there is evidence that the presence of space fungi may not be an entirely threatening prospect. However, more research will be necessary to ensure the fungus is grown in a way that mitigates potentially health concerns.