In 1988, the astronauts aboard the Russian space station Mir realized that something had covered their windows from the outside. This mysterious substance had even started infiltrating the interior of the station, slowly deteriorating the titanium-quartz surface of the window. It was later discovered that this layer was fungi that they themselves had carried into space.
This fungus had managed to adapt to the space environment. It did so well that not only did it survive, but it thrived on windows, control panels, air conditioners, and cable insulators. It even managed to contaminate the crew’s precious food and water. This was the first case where a fungus significantly damaged a space station. But it wouldn’t be the last.
Astronauts have never been and will never be alone during space travel. Instead of fearing this reality, scientists are trying to use it to their advantage. A team associated with the European Space Agency (ESA) has recently conducted hypergravity experiments on fungi. They are attempting to better understand how these organisms effortlessly survive in the space environment. If we can understand their mechanisms, we may be able to use fungi to build settlements on another planet and perhaps even incorporate them into medicines.
Many species of fungi that survive in space remain dormant during launch and travel. Then, they activate and reproduce to form thick living mats in various regions of space stations. These layers not only threaten the health of astronauts but also the electronics, plumbing, and other components of the station.
Since 1988, numerous efforts have been made to establish solid cleaning routines to remove fungi from walls and equipment before the organisms cause serious damage. In addition to these efforts, scientists have realized that studying their growth and behavior and their adaptability in repairing DNA damage caused by space radiation could be useful for crews during long-term space missions.
Aspergillus nidulans on the ISS
Researchers from NASA‘s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California have, for the first time, launched fungi into space for research purposes aboard the International Space Station (ISS)(rif.). The team studied how the ISS environment induced Aspergillus nidulans to create certain molecules it doesn’t produce on Earth. This particular fungus is being studied for osteoporosis drugs that affect 10 million people in the United States alone.
During long-term space missions to the Moon and even Mars, such applications would help astronauts maintain their bone density. Research already shows a decline despite regular exercise routines aboard the ISS. Similar efforts to study fungi are also conducted on Earth. Recently, ESA studied how fungal colonies grow in hypergravity environments.
These particular conditions were artificially created using a centrifuge with values 20 times higher than Earth’s. The two-week research tested how adult fungal species placed in a controlled laboratory gondola responded to stressful conditions. “We will never be able to completely get rid of fungi as we venture into space, so we must understand them” says André Antunes, a researcher involved in the ESA project.
“Furthermore, they offer both positive opportunities and risks. On Earth, fungi are used to produce food, as well as medicines, chemical enzymes for industry, and metallic nanoparticles used in various fields”. The team has also selected some fungal species for a second cycle of hypergravity exposure, primarily to study the extent of stress responses. This second phase aims to better understand why fungal species thrive in microgravity conditions.