Rare new microbe found in two distant clean rooms

November 7, 2013
This microscopic image shows dozens of individual bacterial cells of the recently discovered species Tersicoccus phoenicis. This species has been found in only two places: clean rooms in Florida and South America where spacecraft are assembled for launch. Spacecraft clean rooms are one of the most thoroughly checked environments on Earth for what microbes are present. The monitoring provides an indication of what species might get into space aboard a spacecraft. The image includes a scale bar showing that each of the bacterial cells is about one micrometer, or micron, across (about 0.00004 inch). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

(Phys.org) —A rare, recently discovered microbe that survives on very little to eat has been found in two places on Earth: spacecraft clean rooms in Florida and South America.

Microbiologists often do thorough surveys of bacteria and other microbes in spacecraft clean rooms. Fewer microbes live there than in almost any other environment on Earth, but the surveys are important for knowing what might hitch a ride into space. If extraterrestrial life is ever found, it would be readily checked against the census of a few hundred types of microbes detected in spacecraft clean rooms.

The work to keep clean rooms extremely clean knocks total microbe numbers way down. It also can select for microbes that withstand stresses such as drying, chemical cleaning, ultraviolet treatments and lack of nutrients. Perversely, microbes that withstand these stressors often also show elevated resistance to spacecraft sterilization methodologies such as heating and peroxide treatment.

"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 microbiologist Parag Vaishampayan of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., lead author of the 2013 paper about the microbe. "This particular bug survives with almost no nutrients."

This population of berry-shaped bacteria is so different from any other known bacteria, it has been classified as not only a , but also a new genus, the next level of classifying the diversity of life. Its discoverers named it Tersicoccus phoenicis. Tersi is from Latin for clean, like the room. Coccus, from Greek for berry, describes the bacterium's shape. The phoenicis part is for NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, the spacecraft being prepared for launch in 2007 when the bacterium was first collected by test-swabbing the floor in the Florida clean room.

A microbiologist collects a swab sample from the floor of a spacecraft assembly clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Samples such as this are taken frequently during the assembly of a spacecraft and analyzed for a census of the types and numbers of microbes present in the clean room. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Some other microbes have been discovered in a spacecraft clean room and found nowhere else, but none previously had been found in two different clean rooms and nowhere else. Home grounds of the new one are about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) apart, in a NASA facility at Kennedy Space Center and a European Space Agency facility in Kourou, French Guiana.

A bacterial DNA database shared by microbiologists worldwide led Vaishampayan to find the match. The South American detection had been listed on the database by a former JPL colleague, Christine Moissl-Eichinger, now with the University of Regensburg in Germany. She is first co-author of the paper published this year in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology identifying the new genus.

The same global database showed no other location where this strain of bacteria has been detected. That did not surprise Vaishampayan. He said, "We find a lot of bugs in clean rooms because we are looking so hard to find them there. The same bug might be in the soil outside the clean room but we wouldn't necessarily identify it there because it would be hidden by the overwhelming numbers of other bugs."

A teaspoon of typical soil would have thousands more types of microbes and billions more total than an entire cleanroom. More than 99 percent of bacterial strains, as identified from DNA sequences, have never been cultivated in laboratories, a necessary step for the various types of characterization required to identify a strain as a new species.

Microbes that are tolerant of harsh conditions become more evident in clean room environments that remove the rest of the crowd.

"Tersicoccus phoenicis might be found in some natural environment with extremely low nutrient levels, such as a cave or desert," Vaishampayan speculated. This is the case for another species of bacterium (Paenibacillus phoenicis) identified by JPL researchers and currently found in only two places on Earth: a spacecraft in Florida and a bore hole more than 1.3 miles (2.1 kilometers) deep at a Colorado molybdenum mine.

Ongoing research with Tersicoccus phoenicis is aimed at understanding possible ways to control it in spacecraft clean rooms and fully sequencing its DNA. Students from California State University, Los Angeles, have participated in the research to characterize the newly discovered species.

Explore further: Searching salt for answers about life on Earth, Mars

Related Stories

NASA image: NIRSpec's clean room move

September 30, 2013

Engineers hoisted NASA's Webb telescope's Near Infrared Spectrograph or NIRSpec from its shipping container to a dolly in the clean room at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. 

Human immune system shapes skin microbiome

October 29, 2013

Our skin plays host to millions of beneficial and potentially disease-causing microorganisms; however, whether our immune system influences these microbial communities to prevent disease is unknown. In a study published online ...

Recommended for you

No alien 'signals' from cigar-shaped asteroid: researchers

December 14, 2017

No alien signals have been detected from an interstellar, cigar-shaped space rock discovered travelling through our Solar System in October, researchers listening for evidence of extraterrestrial technology said Thursday.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

4 / 5 (1) Nov 07, 2013
It may be that the microbe is more ubiquitous, but usually goes un-noticed among the crowds of other microbes like a dandruff flake in the snow.
1 / 5 (3) Nov 07, 2013
what an utter waste of time it is to worry so obsessively about bio-contamination of the cosmos. It's just another example of make work for scientists who don't want to do real work and want to play 24/7.

In the absolute worst case scenario any sort of contamination we could deliver to Mars or Europa (the likeliest places) would take longer than we are going to exist as a species to actually show up in such inhospitable environments should they actually survive the trip and landing on the surface..

The worst places on Earth, Antarctica Atacama are paradises compared to Mars, and the radiation of Jupiter ensures anything we'd send there would be sterilized many times better than we can do on purpose on Earth.

Finally if they are so worried we might contaminate something, then they must be equally sure they have found proof of life, and they are just not sharing it.

To simply do this "just in case" boggles the mind.
1 / 5 (2) Nov 08, 2013
Jonseer doesnt understand & demonstrates it with this blunder:-
"..who don't want to do real work and want to play.."

Jonseer then betrayed he holds banal assumptions with this gem:-
"To simply do this "just in case" boggles the mind."

Anyone in the complex field of microbiology for any length of time appreciates there are many risk assessment issues, some have comparatively low probability but include sophisticated causal factors often only understood by those well educated which improve Understanding !

I feel sorry for Jonseer he didnt get the necessary education to understand any issues of combinatorial complexity Eg in biochemistry & microbiology but, Jonseer's outburst demonstrates his prejudice & ignorance with immature barks which don't advance knowledge & only complain, sadly all too common...

Bacteria are now used to produce fuels, now we know there is another species which can be isolated we have more opportunities to investigate more useful outcomes, good news !
1 / 5 (2) Nov 08, 2013
Issue of microbiology & permutations offering mutations are considered extremely important in respect of disease control issues, just read some of the CDC's concerns & bear in mind we have been complacent for decades in an increasingly dynamic biochemical environment.

The human race has sprouted from small localized groups with negligible travel to large groups of many millions traveling daily across continental boundaries in very short (evolutionary) time of only 100 years or so, this is extremely significant in terms of biochemical permutations.

One can now understand issues of government responses to viruii such as SARS & others & interactions between viruii & bacteria other than phages, eg Commensals & potential mutation pathways readily able to produce deadly pathogens from previously benign bacteria.

To gain an improved though superficial understanding of how important the issue may well be in terms of space travel, this link could help:-


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.