Water is essential to life. Without it, humans can survive for only days. So NASA spaceflights are reliant on water for successful space travel, but supplying enough water to sustain life in the very cramped quarters of a spacecraft or space station is not an easy order to fill.
Now, armed with a $750,000 grant from the NASA Artemis project, Jiseon Yang, a researcher at the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, will study how microbes evolve and interact with water sources in space.
“I have always been a curious person," Yang said. "I like thinking, putting puzzle pieces together. I think it was my destiny to become a scientist, and this is very exciting — working with NASA.”
On a daily basis, the average adult burns through 93 gallons of water: flushing toilets, taking showers, drinking and washing. Considering that 93 gallons of H2O weighs approximately 772 pounds, storing enough water on the International Space Station (ISS) is a challenge. In fact, it is impossible to deliver that much water 250 miles above Earth’s atmosphere for up to 13 astronauts each day. As a closed environment, the ISS team does not have the opportunity to replenish their supply at will, so reuse is required.
NASA has been studying aspects of water in space since its inception: how to filter it, how to sanitize it and how to sustain it for reuse. They are able to recapture 93% of the water they use. They reuse any and all water sources possible, including grey water from washing and showering. They even process and purify their own urine and sweat. In 2008, they installed a state-of-the-art processing system that is second to none. The water coming from this tap is drinkable by even the most discerning of palates.
One aspect that NASA scientists keep in mind is that water is attractive to all forms of life. Not only does NASA need to purify the water, but they also need to monitor the distribution system pipeline that the water travels through after purification. Just like our tap water on Earth, a variety of microbes are found in ISS potable water, and the contamination source is thought to be from the post-purification distribution pipeline. Tiny microbial stowaways can easily contaminate water, potentially leading to the formation of dangerous biofilms. Biofilms are one of the most daunting challenges for space equipment and can cause infection, clogged lines or equipment malfunctions. Any one of those events could be life-threatening in space. Therefore, NASA plans, studies and prepares for any and all possible outcomes, making sure they know everything there is to know about how to ensure clean, healthy and pure water sources for space inhabitants.
Moon dreams require research
And now, NASA is taking on a new challenge. They are embarking on journeys that are so lengthy that it will require the moon to act as a launching and refueling site. NASA calls this new initiative the Artemis program, and with it, they are faced with a whole new laundry list of things to be ready for. In response, they are funding a $9 million grant between 2020 and 2023 for 15 key research projects to help NASA prepare for what is to come. In a study called “Microbial social behavior and heritable genetic or epigenetic changes affected by the spaceflight environment: Understanding the evolution of microbial interactions during spaceflight,” Yang’s goal is to understand the degree to which microbes in water in space could become infections.
“As researchers, we make predictions about what we anticipate will happen," she said. "Sometimes, our expectations and results are completely at odds with each other, and then we modify how we approach the study. It is so important to be open-minded. Especially on a project like this where we are working in a whole new area of science with the Artemis project.”
Yang is not new to the field of research in space. In 2017, she was one of five researchers awarded the joint fellowship between Alfred P. Sloan and NASA where she developed predictive model systems of polymicrobial biofilm formation and susceptibility to chemical disinfectant. Prior to this, she was a key member of Cheryl Nickerson’s team that collaborates with NASA. She identified the virulence potential of a novel multidrug-resistant Salmonella Typhimurium influenced by fluid shear, an aspect of spaceflight condition. She is now an assistant research professor at Biodesign.
“In my previous work, most of the microbes recovered from ISS potable water could form biofilms. This is concerning, since biofilms can be more virulent and they increase the chances of opportunistic infection,” Yang said. "They are tricky to deal with because they can persist in distribution pipelines. When they grow large enough, filtration systems can become clogged. Unfortunately, when the microbes form biofilms they become more drug-resistant, so they are more difficult to eradicate. On the ground, we can easily remedy this with replacement of equipment or delivery from an alternative water source. But — in a long term spaceflight, far from the Earth — this can be life-threatening for crew members relying on the ISS water system for survival. ”
Understanding how tiny worlds evolve in space
Yang will study and compare how microbes inhabit water sources in built environments, both here on Earth and on the ISS.
“NASA has been collecting water samples since 2009 from its distribution pipeline. In my fellowship, I studied samples from many consecutive years to test their susceptibility to disinfectants,” she said.
This was when Yang observed some interesting changes between microbial interactions and the year in which they were isolated. She showed that the microbes were interacting with each other differently from year to year.
“This suggested to me that microevolution was occurring. These observations really served as the inspiration for this next body of work,” she said.
With this new research path, Yang will define how the microbial community interactions are adapting and evolving over time in the ISS water systems. She will be examining their physical characteristics and their genetic profiles. This will provide detailed information about how to predict how infectious they could become.
“We will now ramp up our focus on characterizing the evolution,” Yang said. “The new samples collected in space will be analyzed on the ground, at Biodesign. We will examine the dynamics of microbial interactions and genetic changes occurring in response to the surrounding environments.”
Artemis, the next generation of long-term space travel
The Artemis project, appropriately named after the goddess of the moon, will be focused on establishing a lunar space and refueling station to support space exploration.
“Artemis is not just focused on the moon. NASA is now gearing up for Mars,” Yang said. “For the crew on those missions, there will be no opportunities to get fresh water, it will all be used and reused. Therefore, it is imperative to mitigate risk with every resource planning tool that there is. We need to plan for the unexpected. This work will help us to understand how to make ISS water systems safe, and sustainable. Therefore, we are really contributing to future long-term spaceflight mission programs.”
According to NASA, the Artemis program provides the initial studies for the “next era of exploration (where) NASA will establish a sustainable human presence on the moon with the goal of sending humans to Mars." They will achieve this by building off of commercial space travel.
“Not only is this work helpful for space exploration but it also addresses public health concerns. It will give us a better understanding for the sustainability of our built system here on Earth when dealing with microbes in our own drinking water,” Yang said. “And it is just as important for the field of microbiology itself. It provides details that we don’t have right now. Information that we really need to build on in our field of research.”
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