Biosafety in Space

Biosafety is defined by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) as the application of certain rules and precautions in order to prevent the outbreak of microbiological material, or biohazards, into an environment external to a laboratory (CDC, 2021). The “Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety” explains that the initial concept of biosafety arose from the essential need to protect the ecosystem from evolving biotechnology (‘Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety to the Convention on Biological Diversity’, 2000). Biohazards are substances that pose a threat to biological life whether it be humans, animals or the environment. Some examples of biohazards include biological material such as viruses, bacteria, fungi, medically contaminated materials etc. A system of classification was developed by the CDC in order to establish a universal risk level associated with all known microorganisms. The Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL) manual defines the four biosafety levels (BSL). BSL-1 outlines standard practices that should occur when working with well-characterized organisms that are stable and unlikely to cause significant disease. BSL-1 organisms are considered to be of minimal pathological risk while levels 2-4 increase in pathogenicity, instability and risk. Agents classified under BSL-4 are highly dangerous, their occurrences are rare yet fatal, for example, the Ebola virus. These organisms have no treatments and require the highest levels of biosafety to ensure public and environmental safety is protected (CDC, 2020).

If any biological substance is released from their intended space of confinement, they promote a risk in which the severity directly correlates with the agent’s respective BSL. Consequences such as contamination of an ecosystem leading to irreversible damage or the development of genetic mutations can occur. Microorganisms that are allowed to interact with an unpredictable environment, outside of the clinical environment provided by a laboratory, may mutate. Mutations occur when a change in an organism’s genetic makeup happens. This change can be as small as a single base pair or as significant as a mega-deletion or insertion. Genetic changes may affect the functionality of an organism. They may render the microorganism useless or non-infective, alternatively, more sinister mutations may lead to drug-resistant strains developing (Fitzgerald and Rosenberg, 2019). It is for these prior reasonings that biosafety and security is of the utmost importance when working with biological substances, especially substances classified in the higher biosafety levels. Unfortunately, there are many examples of biohazard leakage from laboratories leading to infection and contamination of people, animals, water sources, plants etc. One such example was the outbreak of the foot and mouth disease (FMD) virus from a laboratory in Surrey, South England. The outbreak led to the mass culling of over 1500 beef cattle on locally infected farms (Ryan et al., 2008). Occurrences of these biosafety failures are readily dealt with on Earth because of the extensive laws and protocols in place during such an event. The possibility of these same occurrences taking place interplanetary on a spacecraft or at a future extra-terrestrial settlement will be addressed in the upcoming sections along with the existing protocols in place.

Extra-terrestrial Biosafety

In 2005 The National Aeronautics and Space administration (NASA) officially made the United States (US) segment of the International Space Station (ISS) a national laboratory. This means that biological payload experiments take place upon the ISS. These payload experiments can carry biologically hazardous material such as soil samples, bacteria, fungi etc. All space-bound payload experiments aboard the ISS are risk-assessed by the Payload Safety Review Panel (PSRP) (Wing C. Wong, 2011).

Human Health Risk

The long-term hazards to the human body from living in the conditions of outer space has been monitored by scientists since space exploration has become more popular. The European Space Agency (ESA) created a study evaluating the biosafety on board human spacecraft. The study involved Automated Biomonitoring of Air and Water Quality in Human Spacecraft, known as Biosis (BIOSIS, 2014).

Current Laws in Place

The five treaties of space exploration uphold the agreed upon laws by the United Nations; The Outer Space Treaty, The Rescue Agreement, The Liability Convention, The Registration Convention and The Moon Agreement (Unoosa, 2018). The Outer Space Treaty of 1967( resolution 2222 (XXI)) acts as a basis of principles that should be followed when performing tasks in outer space that pose a biosafety risk. The treaty states that all harmful contamination must be avoided. Taking this treaty into account, NASA requires that returning payload from planets believed to be uninhabited and devoid of life be classified as BSL-3, while payload from planets considered to have the potential to house lifeforms be classified as BSL-4 (Rummel et al., 2002). These protocols help avoid interplanetary contamination and are currently being put to use to avoid interplanetary contamination between Mars and Earth. NASA compiled a policy booklet, regarding the transfer of Martian soil into Earth’s atmosphere, called “Mars Sample Return Receiving Facility” (Atlas, 2002)