ASU postdoc awarded fellowship to study International Space Station microbes


Joe Caspermeyer

Arizona State University has received new support from the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and NASA for its rising research stars to study the microbiome of the built environment on board the International Space Station (ISS).

ASU Biodesign Institute postdoctoral researcher Jiseon Yang was just one of five scientists chosen from across the country for a fellowship award from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation under a joint call with NASA – “Microbes of the Built Environment (MoBE) Program” of the ISS. Her research will advance our knowledge and understanding of human-built habitats on Earth, enhance ISS utilization, and inform the intelligent design of future space exploration vehicles that are occupied by humans.

“We are very proud of Jiseon’s achievements and honored by her new postdoctoral fellowship and generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and NASA,” said Cheryl Nickerson, Yang’s postdoctoral mentor. “When humans travel beyond Earth’s orbit again, it is critical that we understand the health risks associated with the interactions between microbes, humans and their spacecraft in the unique environment of space.”

When fully implemented, Yang’s award is part of five national fellowships that will have a total value of about $700,000 during a two-year period.

NASA and the Sloan Foundation solicited applications through parallel research announcements for post-doctoral fellowships from early career scientists to design experiments that use a NASA collection of microbial isolates collected from the ISS over more than a decade in order to better understand how microbial communities colonize, adapt and evolve in this unique environment.

As part of her fellowship, Yang will explore the impact of thin, slimy films of microbial colonies, called biofilms, that have been found to adhere to interior surfaces of the ISS, including the inside of the water lines from which astronauts get their water for drinking, eating and hygiene. This is problematic, as biofilms are a major cause of infectious disease and also cause damage to the integrity of structural materials of spacecraft.

Biofilms can form on any surface (think of the most common reason for a trip to the dentist’s office, the yellow plaque that forms on our teeth) and are notoriously difficult to remove. Yang will take advantage of a variety of microbial samples collected from the ISS drinking water system over several years to better understand and model how these different microbial communities interact, form biofilms and alter their susceptibility to disinfectants.

Besides the potential to mitigate human health and infectious disease risks associated with biofilm formation during long-term space flight, Yang’s research is also critical to controlling biofilms that can foul or corrode spaceflight systems — all of which can impact mission success.

The overall goals of these funded research fellowships are to examine how the space flight environment influences genetic and functional changes in microbial isolates collected from the ISS which may alter their virulence (ability to cause disease), resistance to antimicrobial agents, and biocorrosion of materials.

NASA and the Sloan Foundation agreed through a Space Act Agreement to work in parallel for a common purpose: to better understand how microbial communities colonize, adapt, and evolve on the ISS. Both entities have a shared interest in promoting microbiology research that will enhance scientific understanding of the microbiome of built environments.

“The proposed studies offer a powerful approach to advance our understanding of microbial population dynamics, biofilm formation and susceptibility to chemical disinfectants that may be occurring in the ISS drinking water system over time,” Yang said.  “In addition, understanding the microbiome of the ISS also provides a foundation to understand the impact of environmental factors on Earth as they influence complex microbial ecosystems of human built and occupied environments, like office buildings and hospitals.”

For a complete list of the selected proposals, principal investigators and organizations, visit:

The Space Biology Program is managed by the Space Life and Physical Sciences Research and Applications Division in NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at the agency's headquarters in Washington, DC.

The Microbiology of the Built Environment (MoBE) Program is managed by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a charitable foundation based in New York City that supports research in science, technology, and economics.