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New species of microbe thrives in spacecraft clean rooms

An extremely rare microbe pops up in two different spacecraft clean rooms, one in Florida and one in South America.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
New species of spacecraft clean room microbe
Here's a closer look at Tersicoccus phoenicis. NASA/JPL-Caltech

A lot of us out here in geek-world are big fans of all things space. It turns out a certain sect of microbes are also space groupies. The recently discovered species Tersicoccus phoenicis has shown up in two of the cleanest places on Earth: spacecraft clean rooms in Florida and South America, but have been found nowhere else.

Microbiologists like to do sweeps of these clean rooms to see what kind of microbes can survive in an environment designed to wipe out their kind. Those are exactly the sort of little creatures that are likely to hitchhike on spacecraft, and have the potential for contaminating off-world study sites.

Tersicoccus phoenicis requires almost no nutrients to live. It's so unusual, it has its own genus. The Latin name comes from a combination of words meaning "clean" (for clean rooms), "berry" (for its shape), and "phoenicis" for the Phoenix Mars Lander. The lander was present in 2007 when the curious microbes were first gathered in Florida.

"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," says NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory researcher Parag Vaishampayan.

Vaishampayan thinks the microbes could trace back to a harsh environment like a cave or desert. An international microbe database helped NASA researchers match the Kennedy Space Center discovery to samples found in a European Space Agency clean room in French Guiana.

By studying Tersicoccus phoenicis, scientists hope to learn how to control it to keep clean rooms just a little cleaner. It would sure be a bummer if the first life we find on Mars was actually just a tough microbe stowing away from Earth.

Collecting microbes in a NASA clean room
A microbiologist collects a sample from a spacecraft assembly clean room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. NASA/JPL-Caltech