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3 Questions: How to Control Biofilms in Space

By November 6, 2019November 12th, 2019No Comments

Researchers from MIT will be collaborating with colleagues at the University of Colorado at Boulder on an experiment scheduled to be sent to the International Space Station (ISS) on Nov. 2. The experiment is looking for ways to address the formation of biofilms on surfaces within the space station. These hard-to-kill communities of bacteria or fungi can cause equipment malfunctions and make astronauts sick. MIT News asked professor of mechanical engineering Kripa Varanasi and doctoral student Samantha McBride to describe the planned experiments and their goals.

Q: For starters, tell us about the problem that this research aims to address.

Varanasi: Biofilms grow on surfaces in space stations, which initially was a surprise to me. Why would they grow in space? But it’s an issue that can jeopardize the key equipment — space suits, water recycling units, radiators, navigation windows, and so on — and can also lead to human illness. It therefore needs to be understood and characterized, especially for long-duration space missions.

In some of the early space station missions like Mir and Skylab, there were astronauts who were getting sick in space. I don’t know if we can say for sure it’s due to these biofilms, but we do know that there have been equipment failures due to biofilm growth, such as clogged valves.

In the past there have been studies that show the biofilms actually grow and accumulate more in space than on Earth, which is kind of surprising. They grow thicker; they have different forms. The goal of this project is to study how biofilms grow in space. Why do they get all these different morphologies? Essentially, it’s the absence of gravity and probably other driving forces, convection for example.