Microbiologists often do thorough surveys of bacteria and other microbes in spacecraft clean rooms. Fewer microbes live there than in almost any other environment on Earth, but the surveys are important for knowing what might hitch a ride into space. If extraterrestrial life is ever found, it would be readily checked against the census of a few hundred types of microbes detected in spacecraft clean rooms.
The work to keep clean rooms extremely clean knocks total microbe numbers way down. It also can select for microbes that withstand stresses such as drying, chemical cleaning, ultraviolet treatments and lack of nutrients. Perversely, microbes that withstand these stressors often also show elevated resistance to spacecraft sterilization methodologies such as heating and peroxide treatment.
"We want to have a better understanding of these bugs, because the capabilities that adapt them for surviving in clean rooms might also let them survive on a spacecraft," said microbiologist Parag Vaishampayan of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., lead author of the 2013 paper about the microbe. "This particular bug survives with almost no nutrients."
This population of berry-shaped bacteria is so different from any other known bacteria, it has been classified as not only a new species, but also a new genus, the next level of classifying the diversity of life. Its discoverers named it Tersicoccus phoenicis. Tersi is from Latin for clean, like the room. Coccus, from Greek for berry, describes the bacterium's shape. The phoenicis part is for NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander, the spacecraft being prepared for launch in 2007 when the bacterium was first collected by test-swabbing the floor in the Florida clean room.
Some other microbes have been discovered in a spacecraft clean room and found nowhere else, but none previously had been found in two different clean rooms and nowhere else. Home grounds of the new one are about 2,500 miles (4,000 kilometers) apart, in a NASA facility at Kennedy Space Center and a European Space Agency facility in Kourou, French Guiana.