Bacteria in space – why the International Space Station is riddled with ‘germs’

Roger Pickup, Lancaster University

Forget Ridley Scott’s Alien.


There’s a new, real-life horror story in space. As one national newspaper headline warned this week, the International Space Station is ‘filled with germs’.

But should such a revelation really make us scream? The story stems from a new NASA study (reported in Microbiome) which found that some bacterial pathogens, including Actinobacteria – often associated with human skin – are thriving in the station, 248 miles above the Earth. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. A more level-headed microbiological newspaper under my editorship would have tweaked the headline to read ‘Microbiologists not surprised that the International Space Station is filled with microorganisms’.

For it’s time to get something straight. The press tends to think that all bacteria are germs. But they are not. Germs are synonymous with disease, but the majority of bacteria do not cause disease, they are essential to life on earth, driving nutrient cycles and preventing elements and nutrients from being permanently locked up and unavailable. Without bacteria, the Earth would not properly function and we’d become a barren planet. Now that is a horror story.

Microbes are everywhere

Microbes (bacteria, viruses, fungi and protozoa) are everywhere – and in large numbers. They show wide diversity, and thrive where it is hospitable while colonising areas we would not think possible, such as hot springs, in the middle of salt crystal and at the bottom of the deepest oceans.

The human body carries 20 times more bacterial cells than human cells, and we, like the environment, would suffer if we were microbiologically sterile. Bacteria in our guts process food, protect us from invasive germs and also challenge and boost our immune systems, making them stronger.

As you descend a subway escalator, just run you finger along the surfaces. That black grime is mainly human cells and associated bacteria. Humans shed millions of cells a day. Indeed, trailing dogs follow specific human scents laid down by shed skin cells in the environment. Just consider that a fully-clothed person can lay down enough cells for a dog to track them more than 72 hours later.

But what’s this go to do with ISS and NASA? Well, let’s just say that no microbiologist would be surprised or alarmed to hear that NASA has found the ISS to be filled with microbes (including a few “germs” or bacteria that cause disease). It is an enclosed unit, it has oxygen, and it is filled with people who are shedding skin and bacteria.

They also have to perform bodily functions and, even in a perfect world, toilet habits are less than spotless. Faecal material, which also carries large numbers of bacteria, may be introduced.

Canny little colonists

So the personnel on ISS are likely the main source of contamination although some bacteria may have been introduced as far back as the construction of sections back on Earth.

NASA seeks to understand how the total bacterial diversity and profile changes with time and its effect on its personnel, too. As NASA has said: “Understanding the nature of the communities of microbes – the microbiome – in the station is key to managing astronaut health and maintenance of equipment.”

After all, the ISS, like other spacecraft, is a closed community. Nothing blows in through the window – if it did, bacteria would be the least of the crew’s worries – and this environment only changes occasionally during the infrequent personnel changes, when new astronauts bring aboard their own distinct microbial communities. NASA seeks to better understand this and how it might affect future missions.

Time for a spring clean?

So should the astronauts spend a little more time cleaning? Doing a little vacuuming? A bit of dusting and polishing?

Well, they probably do that anyway. Their air is filtered and there are few reports of infections afflicting the crew. Despite the headlines that conjure up a picture of a soup of bacteria filling the ISS, infection among the crew is relatively rare.

A comparison over a three-year period showed that a high proportion of medical events were physical problems. Space adaptation syndrome and nervous system problems accounted for 50 per cent of all the medical events with infectious disease accounting for only 1.4 per cent of such issues.

Astronauts further reduce the possibility of infection through periods of quarantine prior to their mission. NASA is rightly concerned that infections could be transmitted to all in such a closed environment.

This NASA study is an important piece of research because it relates to understanding the factors that ensure the disease-free status and well-being of current and future ISS crews, where help is not immediately at hand and prevention is better than a cure.

Infectious disease is only one of the medical factors that can affect the astronauts’ health as they have other non-microbiological influences to contend with. Indeed, for them, living with microbes is likely just another much-needed reminder of home. However, coming home, with their immune systems optimised to the ISS microbial environment might possibly leave them more susceptible to challenges posed by exposure to the wider range of infectious agents on Earth.

Roger Pickup does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.

Nigerian army: 338 Boko Haram captives rescued

It said it raided a number of the Islamist militant group’s camps on the edge of its stronghold in the northeast’s Sambisa forest.


The army said troops carried out the successful raid on the camps at the northeastern villages of Bulajilin and Manawashe, along the Bita and Damboa road. Reuters was unable to independently verify the details of the military statement.

Those rescued included eight males, 138 females and 192 children who have been evacuated, military spokesman Sani Usman said. He added that 30 suspected militants had been killed.

Photographs shared on Nigeria Defence Headquarters’ Facebook and Twitter pages showed what were said to be dead militants, captured assault rifles and boxes.

One photograph showed what were said to be over a dozen freed Boko Haram captives.

Suspected members of the militant group, which has killed thousands and displaced 2.1 million people in the remote northeast of Africa’s most populous nation, claimed the lives of at least 37 people and wounded 107 others last week in Adamawa and Borno states.

The vast Sambisa forest reserve, the group’s remaining stronghold, has become hard to penetrate due to widespread landmines laid by the militant group.

In the last few months the military has ramped up its offensive into the Sambisa and surrounding areas with air strikes and an increase in ground troops.

Security sources in neighbouring Niger on Wednesday blamed Boko Haram for the deaths of at least 14 people in an overnight attack on a village in the southeast of the country.

Icebreaker price yet to be confirmed

Australia’s bigger, stronger and faster new icebreaker vessel will cost about $1 billion to build and maintain.


But while Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has already unveiled a model of the ship, the exact cost is yet to be finalised.

Visiting Tasmania on Thursday, Mr Turnbull announced that Netherlands-based and British-owned Damen Shipyards will build the 156-metre vessel that will call Hobart home and begin operations in October 2019.

He said funding for a new ship to replace the outdated, 25-year-old Aurora Australis was “clearly necessary” and defended engaging a foreign company to build the vessel.

“The business of building icebreakers … the market for that or the business for that is not located in Australia,” Mr Turnbull told reporters.

“This is a niche vessel, so I don’t think it’s surprising that all the tenders involved an overseas yard.”

Six tenders were initially received in a process that had been overseen by the Finance Department and independent advisers KPMG, Environment Minister Greg Hunt said.

“There’s a tender process going on,” he said.

“We are on track to a result that will represent a very successful result for Australia. We are driving a very hard bargain.”

The cost would include operating and maintenance costs for the ship until 2049, the majority of which would be spent in Australia, Mr Hunt added.

The federal government will launch a competition to name the new ship, which will be specially designed to allow scientists unprecedented access to the Southern Ocean and Antarctica.

New technology will enable sea floor mapping and on-board laboratories will offer scientists in situ research facilities.

While on the topic, Mr Turnbull was asked if he would be making a diplomatic appeal to Japan not to carry out whaling in the Southern Ocean.

“We strongly encourage Japan to cease its whaling operations at any time, in any season, in any year,” Mr Turnbull said, adding that Australia had made its stance clear.


Name: To be decided by a public competition

Price: To be confirmed

Colour: Orange

Length: 156 metres

Passengers: 116

Cargo: 1200 tonnes

Icebreaking speed: Three knots through 1.65-metre-thick ice

Range: More than 16,000 nautical miles

If you want your child to bring home better grades, stop yelling and try this

John Pickering, The University of Queensland and Jinny Hong, The University of Queensland

The end of the year is speeding towards us, and for teachers, kids and parents alike, that means one thing – report card time.


Right now, teachers across Australia are busy marking reports for nearly 4 million school students. Each report is filled out according to different guidelines and curricula, as well as differing degrees of flexibility.

But what about parents? What guidelines, if any, can help prepare you to respond in the right way when you receive your child’s report card – especially if your child isn’t doing as well as you might like?

A recent University of Michigan study, published in the Journal of Family Psychology, offers some useful advice.

Researchers asked parents of nearly 500 US children how they would respond if their 11- to 13-year-old child brought home a report card with lower-than-expected grades or progress.

They sorted those responses into two broad categories – “punitive” vs “proactive” – and then investigated whether the parents’ responses predicted better or worse school results five years later.

The study found that children whose parents said they would respond by lecturing, punishing or restricting their child’s social activities actually had lower levels of literacy and maths achievement by the end of high school.

The main reason that “punitive parenting” strategies like those are unlikely to work is that they do not directly address the underlying problems that lead to the poor result.

For example, the researchers argue, limiting social activities is only likely to improve school performance if going to too many social events is the reason underlying the poor performance.

Perhaps just as importantly, parents who use punitive parenting practices may inadvertently deny their children the opportunity to learn the very skills and knowledge they require to improve their grades. Even worse, punitive strategies may increase children’s sense of frustration and aversion to school work.

If punishment won’t work, what are some proven solutions?

On the positive side, the University of Michigan study and others have shown that children growing up in a cognitively stimulating home environment – characterised by things like access to books, musical instruments, and trips to the museum – are likely to show higher levels of achievement in reading and maths in high school.

Other evidence also points to the value of creating a less punitive and more nurturing environment with warm, consistent and responsive parenting, though still with limits and boundaries for their children.

Such an environment not only stands to enhance your child’s academic achievements, but many aspects of their biological, social, emotional and behavioural development too.

In addition, the University of Michigan study said teachers should consider providing comments with grades so that parents can understand the reasons behind the child’s performance, such as lack of comprehension of the concepts versus not submitting homework on time.

Other research has shown the importance of giving and seeking specific feedback from an external source, such as a parent or teacher, on what good performance is, how their current performance relates to the ideal standard, and how they can act to close that gap.

Teachers are a great source of information so that parents can understand the reasons behind their child’s poor performance, and not make faulty attributions about the underlying cause.

And no matter how bad the report card might be, don’t fall into the easy trap of taking out your child’s poor performance on the school.

Teachers are not only there to help, but are an important ally in helping improve your child’s school performance. Engage in co-operative and constructive collaboration with your child’s school that is built on mutual respect and understanding.

It is important to note that there are plenty of other factors that can predict academic success: genes, parents’ level of education, the age of parents when a child is born, school infrastructure and teacher performance.

Some of these factors can’t be changed, but many can.

The challenge for parents is to tune in to those things that can be changed and act on them accordingly.

Three tips to remember at report card time

    When unexpected or poor results come in, research shows that reacting with frustration, anger, lecturing or punishment isn’t the best way to get better results.

    Consistent and responsive parenting will do more good than a punitive approach.

    Give and seek specific feedback on your child’s progress – especially the reasons behind any unexpected results.

John Pickering is an employee of The University of Queensland (UQ). UQ owns The Triple P-Positive Parenting Program. The University through its technology transfer company, UniQuest Pty Ltd, has licensed Triple P International Pty Ltd to publish and disseminate the program worldwide. Royalties stemming from published Triple P resources are distributed to the University and contributory authors. John Pickering has no authorial connection to Triple P and is not a financial recipient of program dissemination.

Jinny Hong is an employee of The University of Queensland (UQ). UQ owns The Triple P-Positive Parenting Program. The University through its technology transfer company, UniQuest Pty Ltd, has licensed Triple P International Pty Ltd to publish and disseminate the program worldwide. Royalties stemming from published Triple P resources are distributed to the University and contributory authors. Jinny Hong has no authorial connection to Triple P and is not a financial recipient of program dissemination.

Iran preparing for ‘tsunami’ of tourists

Iran’s vice president says his country is preparing for a “tsunami” of foreign tourists after sanctions are lifted.


Iran and world powers are to start implementing a landmark nuclear deal that will lift the sanctions in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.

Masoud Soltanifar, who is also the chief of Iran’s Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism Organisation, says President Hassan Rouhani’s moderate policies and the easing of visa rules are opening the door for the return of foreign tourists to Iran.

A country rich in historical and cultural treasures, Iran will unveil an investment package of 1300 projects in the coming days to attract foreign funds and boost the badly hit tourism industry. Iran is home to 19 UNESCO-registered sites.

The number of foreigners visiting Iran has grown by 12 per cent in each of the past two years. In 2014, Iran hosted more than five million tourists, bringing in some $US7.5 billion ($A10.34 billion) in revenue.

About half were Shi’ite Muslims, the same religious denomination as most Iranians, and the other half were tourists from Europe, North America and East Asia.

“In the post-sanctions era, tourism is an industry that will get a boost more than any other sector,” Soltanifar said.

“Tourism is certainly the driving engine to get Iran’s economy out of recession. Iran’s tourism sector is a flourishing market for investors. We are anticipating a tsunami of tourists after sanctions are lifted.”

But the US State Department warns US travellers to “carefully consider the risks of travel to Iran”.

In particular, it has advised Americans with dual Iranian citizenships that they may encounter difficulties leaving the country. It says US citizens may be subject to harassment or arrest while travelling in the country.

The country’s Revolutionary Court has convicted Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian on charges including espionage without providing details on the verdict or sentence. Rezaian, who was detained in July 2014, has now been held longer than the 52 American diplomats and citizens who were held hostage in Iran for 444 days from late 1979 to early 1981.

Besides Rezaian, former Marine Amir Hekmati, who holds dual Iranian and American citizenship, was arrested in August 2011.

The US has also asked for the Iranian government’s assistance in finding former FBI agent Robert Levinson, who went missing in 2007 while working for the CIA on an unapproved intelligence mission.

Soltanifar, a member of Rouhani’s cabinet, said officials were trying to remove obstacles for tourists and issue visas on arrival at the airport in Tehran for nationals of 190 countries.

The visas would be valid for 30 days, with the possibility of extending for another 15 days. Tourism authorities were also planning to issue electronic visas beginning next year, he said.

Americans and Brits travelling to Iran will need a visa ahead of time to enter mainland Iran, according to their respective governments. In 2014, there were 3400 American visitors to Iran, up from 1800 in 2013, Soltanifar said.

Iran aims to host 20 million tourists a year by 2025, with expectations of growing the tourist industry to $US30 billion ($A41.37 billion).

Currently, Iran lacks sufficient accommodation and transportation for that number of tourists. Iran has 1100 hotels and guest houses, 130 of them four and five-star hotels.

“We need to increase (the number of) our four and five-star hotels from 130 to 400 in 10 years,” Soltanifar said. “We are providing low-interest funds out of the National Development Fund to private investors to build modern hotels.”

Iran needs more than 400 new passenger planes to compensate for the shortages caused by sanctions during the past three decades. Of its 250 passenger planes, 100 are currently grounded because of lack of spare parts. The remaining 150 aging aircraft need to be renovated.

“We need to renovate our air transportation system and buy new planes after sanctions are lifted, but this will be time-consuming,” Soltanifar said.

Iran has a history of air crashes in recent years, leading to hundreds of casualties. Last week, an Iranian passenger plane with 426 passengers and crew members on board safely landed after part of an engine fell off.

Iran’s constitutional watchdog, the Guardian Council, ratified into law this week a parliamentary bill implementing the landmark nuclear deal with world powers.

The UN Security Council approved the deal on July 20 and the US Congress blocked efforts by Republicans to derail the accord in September.

Soltanifar, a moderate, welcomed investors and tourists from the US, the country known by hardliners as the “Great Satan”.

“American tourists and investors are welcome,” he said. “There is no obstacle or restrictions for them to visit Iran or invest in the country.”

France and the United Kingdom have relaxed travel advice for their citizens following the historic July nuclear deal. The UK reopened its embassy in Tehran in August after a four-year closure.

Last month, an Iranian firm signed an agreement with French hotel giant AccorHotels to use the Novotel and Ibis brands for 15 years, the first deal of its kind in three decades.