A New Species: The Clean Room Bacteria

A fascinating piece in Scientific American, summarizing how scientists discovered a new species of bacterium in two separate clean room facilities (one at the European Space Agency and the other at Kennedy Space Center):

The researchers named the bacterium Tersicoccus phoenicis. “Tersi” is Latin for clean, as in clean room, and “coccus” comes from Greek and describes the bacterium in this genus’s berrylike shape. “Phoenicis” as the species name pays homage to thePhoenix lander. The scientists determined that T. phoenicis shares less than 95 percent of its genetic sequence with its closest bacterial relative. That fact, combined with the unique molecular composition of its cell wall and other properties, was enough to classify Tersicoccus phoenicis as part of a new genus—the next taxonomic level up from species in the system used to classify biological organisms. The researchers are not sure yet if the bug lives only in clean rooms or survives elsewhere but has simply escaped detection so far, says Christine Moissl-Eichinger of the University of Regensburg in Germany, who identified the species at the ESA’s Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. Some experts doubt thatTersicoccus phoenicis would fare well anywhere other than a clean room. “I think these bugs are less competitive, and they just don’t do so well in normal conditions,” says Cornell University astrobiologist Alberto Fairén, who was not involved in the analysis of the new genus. “But when you systematically eliminate almost all competition in the clean rooms, then this genus starts to be prevalent.”

Only the hardiest of microbes can survive inside a spacecraft clean room, where the air is stringently filtered, the floors are cleansed with certified cleaning agents, and surfaces are wiped with alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, then heated to temperatures high enough to kill almost any living thing. Any human who enters the room must be clad head to foot in a “bunny suit” with gloves, booties, a hat and a mask, so that the only exposed surface is the area around a person’s eyes. Even then, the technician can enter only after stomping on sticky tape on the floor to remove debris from the soles of her booties, and passing through an “air shower” to blow dust away from the rest of her. 

As always: life finds a way. Not only was this a discovery of a new species, it was a discovery of a new genus.

The full paper, for those of you interested, is here.

 

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