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NASA prepares to fight fungus in space and on other planets

When you shut humans in the kind of habitats that could one day be used on Mars, it can be rough. But it's a combination that helps another form of life thrive.


The Inflatable Lunar/Mars Analog Habitat (ILMAH) mimics conditions in space or on other worlds.

Blachowicz, et al. / Microbiome

Life in space can be hard, what with the lack of gravity, the abundance of radiation and a number of other things that can kill or damage a person. Now NASA is investigating another somewhat surprising enemy of astronaut health: fungus.

A new study published Monday in the journal Microbiome shows that when you add humans to the type of enclosed habitats that could one day be used on the moon or other planets like Mars, it can give a boost to the community of fungal stowaways known as the mycobiome.

A team lead by researchers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory watched what happened when humans moved into the Inflatable Lunar/Mars Analog Habitat (ILMAH) meant to simulate conditions on the International Space Station and on hypothetical lunar or Martian bases. 

"We showed that the overall fungal diversity changed when humans were present," report co-author and NASA Senior Research Scientist Dr. Kasthuri Venkateswaran, said in a release.

Certain fungi seemed to thrive once humans were added to the ILMAH, including some that can colonize the body and cause allergies, asthma or infections, particularly in people with decreased immune systems like astronauts. 

"Fungi are extremophiles that can survive harsh conditions and environments like deserts, caves or nuclear accident sites, and they are known to be difficult to eradicate from other environments including indoor and closed spaces," Venkateswaran explained. "Fungi are not only potentially hazardous to the inhabitants but could also deteriorate the habitats themselves."

In other words, watch out fungus, you are on NASA's list of space enemies. 

Venkateswaran hopes investigating the mycobiome in the type of habitats used beyond Earth can lead to the development of cleaning and maintenance procedure to help keep the fungi at bay. First, though, more research is required, starting with studying the mycobiomes of the humans that actually lived in the habitat.

Regardless of those results, the problem future astronauts will have to be wary of is clear: even in space, beware the fungus among us.

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