Sunita Williams' Crew Finds Bug At Space Station; What Risks Does It Pose?

Indo-American astronaut Sunita Williams took off her on third space mission on June 5. Her crew has now reportedly found a drug-resistant bacteria at the International Space Station.

Tanya Savkoor
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sunita williams crew

Sunita Williams and her crew reached the ISS on board the new Boeing Starliner spacecraft on June 6 | Image: Boeing Space, X

Indo-American NASA astronaut Sunita Williams and her crew on the Boeing Starliner mission have encountered an unanticipated organism in space. No, not aliens, bugs! The nine-member team has found a multi-drug resistant bacteria called 'Enterobacter bugandensis' in the International Space Station (ISS). The bacteria, which is often referred to as a 'superbug', has reportedly evolved and become more potent in the closed environment of the ISS.


Is The Bug Dangerous?

According to scientists, superbugs can pose health risks by attacking the respiratory system. It is important to note that these bacteria are not extra-terrestrial life but bugs that have travelled as hidden co-passengers when they went to work at the ISS.

Sunita Williams and her crewmate Barry Eugene "Butch" Wilmore reached the ISS on board the new Boeing Starliner spacecraft on June 6, 2024. They will be testing the new spacecraft in the low earth orbiting laboratory before returning to Earth on June 14.

The seven other crew members have been living on the ISS for a longer period. While flying space debris and micrometeorites are a common worry, bugs carried along with astronauts are a new threat after over two decades of continuous space inhibition.

Scientists have pointed out that astronauts operating in altered immune conditions with limited access to traditional medical facilities face unique health challenges during space missions. Thus, research on microbes in the ISS is paramount.

Research On The Bacteria


Recently, NASA said strains of the bacterial species isolated from the International Space Station (ISS) were studied. Thirteen strains of E. bugandensis, a bacterium notorious for being multi-drug resistant, were isolated from the ISS.

Findings indicate that under stress, the ISS-isolated strains were mutated and became genetically and functionally distinct, compared to their Earth counterparts. They were able to viably persist in space over time with a significant abundance.

The E. bugandensis bacteria co-existed with multiple other microorganisms, and in some cases could have helped those organisms survive. This study was undertaken jointly by NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab and the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras.

Emphasising the broader implications of the research, the five-scientist team pointed out that understanding the microbial landscape aboard the ISS is paramount for assessing the impact of these microorganisms on astronaut well-being.

NASA says "Closed human-built environments, such as the ISS, are unique areas that provide an extreme environment subject to microgravity, radiation, and elevated carbon dioxide levels. Any microorganisms introduced to these areas must adapt to thrive."

In a report in NDTV, the American aerospace agency further stated, "By delving into microbial dynamics in extreme environments, this research opens doors to effective preventative measures for astronaut health."

NASA research Sunita Williams