Unknown Bacteria Discovered in Two Spacecraft Clean Rooms

Scientists have discovered a microbe that – to their knowledge – can be found just two places on Earth. The first: a spacecraft clean room in Guiana. The second: a spacecraft clean room in Florida, some 2,500 miles away.

Above: Recently discovered species Tersicoccus phoenici under microscope | Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The discovery is certainly surprising, but perhaps not for the reason you expect. Clean rooms – where space agencies like NASA and ESA prepare spacecraft prior to launch – are certainly among the most sterile places on Earth, and therefore seem a rather unlikely place to find new forms of life. And yet, it bears mentioning that this is not the first time scientists have found one to harbor a microbe. In fact, in 2007, despite scientists' best efforts to zap them into oblivion with intense heat, chemical cleaning, and UV radiation, samples collected from three different NASA cleanrooms turned up close to 100 different kinds of bacteria, about half of which were new to science.

Point being: even in the cleanest of places, microbial life finds a way. But what makes Tersicoccus phoenicis special (for that is what the newly discovered bacterium is called) is not that it can be found in a spacecraft clean room and nowhere else – it is that the report on T. phoenicis, published in a recent issue of the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, is the first to describe a bacteria that exists in two different, geographically distinct clean rooms and nowhere else.

Clara Moskowitz provides further details at Scientific American:

"Tersi" is Latin for clean, as in clean room, and "coccus" comes from Greek and describes the bacterium in this genus's berrylike shape. "Phoenicis" as the species name pays homage to the Phoenix lander. The scientists determined that T. phoenicis shares less than 95 percent of its genetic sequence with its closest bacterial relative. That fact, combined with the unique molecular composition of its cell wall and other properties, was enough to classify Tersicoccus phoenicis as part of a new genus—the next taxonomic level up from species in the system used to classify biological organisms. The researchers are not sure yet if the bug lives only in clean rooms or survives elsewhere but has simply escaped detection so far, says Christine Moissl-Eichinger of the University of Regensburg in Germany, who identified the species at the ESA's Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. Some experts doubt that Tersicoccus phoenicis would fare well anywhere other than a clean room. "I think these bugs are less competitive, and they just don't do so well in normal conditions," says Cornell University astrobiologist Alberto Fairén, who was not involved in the analysis of the new genus. "But when you systematically eliminate almost all competition in the clean rooms, then this genus starts to be prevalent."

"We want to have a better understanding of these bugs, because the capabilities that adapt them for surviving in clean rooms might also let them survive on a spacecraft," said JPL microbiologist Parag Vaishampayan, lead author of the paper describing the microbe, in a statement. That's important to know – not only because it could help us understand how this bug wound up in two geographically distinct locations, but because it could help ensure it and microbes like it don't hitch a ride to another planet.

[The International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology via SciAm]