Archaea and bacterial extremophiles aboard the International Space Station.

Short Description

The natural microbial flora of the human body, influencing also its biotic and abiotic environment, poses a challenge for manned spaceflight: The risk of a negative effect of this microbiome on the integrity of technical equipment and materials, as well as on the human health (infection, allergies) has to be constantly monitored and surveyed.

Periodically performed, standardized monitoring of the International Space Station (ISS) allows measuring of the microbial contamination level, with a clear focus on the detection of potentially pathogenic microorganisms.

In the frame of this monitoring and the currently ongoing scientific studies of the ISS microbiome, hard-to-cultivate microbes, or those which cannot be detected via standard molecular methods (such as Archaea) remain completely unseen. This gap of knowledge shall now be filled within the project ARBEX.

The proposed work is basic research, with the goal to understand the adaptation and abundance of microorganisms towards the extreme biotope ISS. Therein it is of uppermost interest, which strategies have been evolved by the ISS microorganisms to persist such a long time and insulated from influence from natural, ecological habitats.

Since interactions with the outer environment can be excluded, the human body remains the major carrier for microorganisms. It is unclear at this moment, to which extent the complete microbial diversity within the ISS is influenced by this circumstance.

ARBEX will be the first project, which systematically compares the microbial composition of ground controls and transfer-vehicles like ATV with the ISS microbiome in order to reveal the differentness thereof. We will also try to reveal whether microorganisms persisting in the ISS are more extremophile or extremotolerant than their relatives from Earth, or whether specific, probably health-relevant adaptations have evolved.

Contamination routes should be analyzed, including the possible introduction of microorganisms via transfer-vehicles or a new crew arriving at the ISS. The entire project will not only focus on bacteria, but will also include archaea and fungi: Currently it is completely unclear, whether and to which extent archaea are present in the ISS modules, although these microbes were found to represent a significant part of the human microbiome.

The ISS project ARBEX was proposed 2009 within the ILSRA (International Research Announcement for Research in Space Life Sciences at the International Space Station) calls and was judged with "excellent". It is currently implemented for the spaceflight in 2015. All samples taken from Russian and European modules will afterwards be subjected to detailed laboratory analyses- including state-of-the-art diversity studies, detection of resistances as well as novel, alternative cultivation strategies for microbial specialists and fungi.

An international science team (Russia, GB, Germany, USA, Switzerland) under the leadership of Christine Moissl-Eichinger (Graz) will together work on the analyses of the samples and thus bundle the expertise in order to obtain a different, novel view on the microbiome of the ISS.

Project Partners


Medical University of Graz

Contact Address

Medical University of Graz
Auenbruggerplatz 2
A-8036 Graz
Tel.: +43 (316) 385 0