The Microbiology Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) is a biosafety level two facility responsible for addressing crew health and environmental performance issues related to microbial infection and contamination. This responsibility is achieved by operational monitoring and investigative research using classical microbiological, advanced molecular, and immunohistochemical techniques. Operational monitoring is the larger of the two efforts, maintaining a staff of 12 people.
The activities of the Microbiology Laboratory include a diverse array of operational, research, and development support to NASA and the academic community. As a functional part of the Crew Health Care System and Environmental Life Support Systems, the Microbiology Laboratory coordinates and analyzes in-flight microbial sampling and analysis of air, surface, and water samples. In addition, contingency samples are collected in-flight and analyzed at JSC as required.
The diversity of capabilities within the JSC Microbiology Laboratory results from its highly-skilled interdisciplinary staff. This integrated team of certified medical technologists, environmental microbiologists, immunologists, industrial hygienists, industrial microbiologists, biochemists, mycologists, and biosafety professionals is a vital part of NASA's Human Health and Performance program.
This staff processes clinical samples from the astronauts, their families, and certain JSC facility workers to minimize the risk of infectious disease and transmittal among crewmembers within the close quarters of the spacecraft. In addition to clinical support, environmental samples including preflight and in-flight samples are analyzed to ensure that microorganisms do not adversely affect crew health or system performance. These samples include air, potable water, spacecraft surfaces, in-flight hardware, and food. In-house and visiting scientists comprise the research staff of the Microbiology laboratory, which investigates the effect of space flight on both crew health and the microbial ecology of the spacecraft. This research has resulted in over 76 presentations and 55 peer-reviewed publications over the past ten years in journals such as Infection and Immunity, Journal of Infectious Disease, and Applied and Environmental Microbiology.
The clinical microbiology laboratory at JSC is accredited by the College of American Pathologists and is charged with helping to ensure the health, safety, and performance of the astronauts. One aspect of the program is conducting microbial evaluations of the crewmembers prior to flight. The laboratory also analyzes samples from family members of the astronauts as well as patients seen in the Occupational Health Clinic. All of the analysts in the clinical microbiology laboratory are certified by the American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP).
The Environmental Microbiology Laboratory (EML) at JSC is specialized in the quantification and identification of microorganisms in air, bulk (dust, building materials), surface, and water samples collected pre-flight, in-flight, and at JSC or other NASA centers. The laboratory utilizes a combination of traditional culture-based, biochemical reaction-based, and molecular-based methods for the identification of microorganisms. The EML is accredited by the American Industrial Hygiene Association Laboratory Accreditation Programs (AIHA-LAP, LLC) Environmental Microbiology Laboratory Accreditation Program (EMLAP) to be ISO 17025 (Standards for Testing and Calibration Laboratories) compliant. The EML is the first microbiology laboratory in NASA to receive the AIHA-LAP, LLC EMLAP accreditation.
Food Quality is a part of the Microbiology Laboratory crew health and safety operational support. The laboratory evaluates thousands of food samples and beverages per year, including "Raw Materials", which are food products that need to be processed and repackaged for flight, and "Finished Goods", which are flight ready. The laboratory also analyzes environmental samples to ascertain the surface and air quality of the Food Facility. Our monitoring strategy focuses on traditional microbiological methods, which is in compliance with the quality standards set forth by the FDA Rules and Regulations. This approach is often supplemented by new techniques, such as molecular-based microbial identification, and epidemiological considerations to ensure that food samples should not pose a risk to the crew. The Microbiology Laboratory continues to work successfully with NASA food scientists to effectively deter microbial growth in food shipped for crew consumption. Our goal for the future is to maintain strong microbial standards as we make advances from current traditional monitoring to new technologies in an effort to improve risk mitigation against food borne illness to the crew during their mission.