Microorganisms, whether fungi, archaea, bacteria, or viruses, are often disparaged as germs with nothing better to do but cause disease. However, scientific advances to better understand the form and function of the human microbiome (the collection of microorganisms that live in and on people) have revealed that the blind eradication of microorganisms is not the answer even if it were possible. In fact, each of us has a unique microbiome that is a vital part of human health, and healthy microbiomes play an active role in protecting us from disease. Healthy microbes (and their interactions with each other as part of the human microbiome) need to be identified and fostered to sustain health.
The ISS National Lab workshop “Exploring the Microbiome/Immunome and Disease on the International Space Station” focused on how the spaceflight environment might accelerate research to better understand the microbiome and its role in maintaining the balance between health and disease. The workshop brought together more than 40 thought leaders from academia, government, and the private sector to discuss ways in which they could work together to improve human health on Earth through spaceflight microbiome research.
Because the microbiome involves complex community interactions of numerous species, many of which are known only by their DNA signatures, it is difficult to fully characterize how the microbes on skin or in the gut contribute to health and disease or how the balance within microbial communities changes in response to the environment. However, research conducted on Earth has shown that our microbiome performs many functions essential to human health, such as making otherwise inaccessible nutrients digestible, providing essential vitamins and nutrients, and protecting us from pathogens.
For example, healthy microbiomes transplanted into individuals with recurrent gut infections are an effective clinical treatment. Moreover, the gut microbiomes of obese people are different from those of lean people, and the microbiomes of people with autism are different from those of people without autism. Because the microbiome may be involved in such diverse conditions, it is critical that researchers find ways to more fully understand its behavior and function—which is where the ISS National Lab may provide an advantage by offering an alternative platform for studying the microbiome.
Spaceflight induces sudden but persistent and profound effects on the human body. Studying the microbiomes of humans and animal models onboard the ISS provides a window into how microbial communities associated with different environments or locations on the body respond to stimuli such as stress, dietary changes, and immune dysfunction—all of which are known to impact the microbiome.
Thus, characterizing the microbiome’s response to spaceflight may yield insights into the complex community interactions that underlie the microbiome’s beneficial—or detrimental—effects on human health. Better understanding these interactions will help medical professionals devise new approaches to leverage those beneficial effects and combat detrimental effects here on Earth.
Participants of the ISS National Lab workshop provided recommendations aimed at maximizing the impact of microbiome research on the ISS, facilitating collaborations and public-private partnerships in support of such initiatives, and standardizing research approaches. These recommendations, which are detailed in a report released in July, are helping to define the path forward in developing a sustainable microbiome research program on the ISS National Lab.
“The workshop was a great opportunity to hear from a wide range of experts interested in using the ISS to study human health from a microbiology and immunology perspective,” said Alexander Voorhies, staff scientist at the J. Craig Venter Institute who attended the workshop. “The ISS is a collaborative endeavor by its nature, and bringing diverse scientists together will hopefully inspire collaborative investigations into making space more habitable for humans.”
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