Problems associated with, and new strategies for, inactivating resistant organisms like Bacillus canaveralius (found at Kennedy Space Center during a survey of three NASA cleanrooms) have been defined. Identifying the particular component of the spore that allows its heightened resistance can guide the development of sterilization procedures that are targeted to the specific molecules responsible for resistance, while avoiding using unduly harsh methods that jeopardize equipment.
The key element of spore resistance is a multilayered protein shell that encases the spore called the spore coat. The coat of the best-studied spore-forming microbe, B. subtilis, consists of at least 45 proteins, most of which are poorly characterized. Several protective roles for the coat are well characterized including resistance to desiccation, large toxic molecules, ortho-phthalaldehyde, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation.
One important long-term specific goal is an improved sterilization procedure that will enable NASA to meet planetary protection requirements without a terminal heat sterilization step. This would support the implementation of planetary protection policies for life-detection missions. Typically, hospitals and government agencies use biological indicators to ensure the quality control of sterilization processes. The spores of B. canaveralius that are more resistant to osmotic stress would serve as a better biological indicator for potential survival than those in use currently.
This work was done by David Newcombe, Anne Dekas, and Kasthuri Venkateswaran of Caltech for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
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