Germs Living in Space “Almost Three Times as Likely to Cause Disease”

by Ian O'Neill on March 11, 2008

The Salmonella bacteria - taking one very big step for a germ (credit: US Dept. of Energy)
In one experiment on board Space Shuttle Endeavor (STS-123) launched early this morning (at 2:28 am EST), the reaction of terrestrial bacteria to zero-G will be tested. When compared with test bacteria bred here on Earth, previous studies suggest that germs bred in space are far more potent and are more likely to cause illness to people in space. The Endeavor mission will continue this experiment in the aim to find some way to prevent these microscopic astronauts causing too many problems to the continuing missions on board the International Space Station and future space tourism companies. Until a solution is found, don’t go ordering fish off the in-flight menu on your next spaceship ride…

Wherever humans go, a whole zoo of bacteria will follow. Most of the bacteria hitching a ride on our skin and inside our bodies live in symbiosis with us, but occasionally problem bugs like salmonella or Escherichia coli (E-coli) can get out of control, causing problems such as common food poisoning to more serious, life-threatening ailments such as tetanus, diphtheria, syphilis, cholera… (the list is pretty long.)

So, as humans venture into space, it is inevitable that bacteria will come too – the whole symbiotic and parasitic jungle – exploring space with us.

Bacteria will mutate, often very quickly, adapting to the environment surrounding the little microbes. Mutation is the difference between a bacteria being harmless to becoming deadly. Mutations help bacteria to survive and as an example, they can become antibiotic resistant. This is a huge problem in places where antibiotics are used very regularly (such as hospitals); genetic information is passed down the generations of bacteria (often doubling in population in a matter of minutes). If just one microbe has the genetic ability to survive a type of antibiotic, its number will multiply, creating a strain of “superbug” that can avoid being killed by antibiotics – one of the most basic examples of “natural selection”. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is one particular nasty strain of the otherwise benign Staphylococcus genus which has mutated to resist commonly used antibiotics.

It is of paramount importance to understand how bacteria react to space conditions, so problems with potentially dangerous forms of bacteria, such as MRSA, can be avoided.

Scientists have discovered that the fairly common salmonella bacteria, usually responsible for terrible food poisoning outbreaks here on Earth, is far more likely to cause serious disease in space and has a much faster rate of reproduction in zero-G. The virilence of salmonella increases drastically in the absense of gravity. The findings from the 2006 Space Shuttle Atlantis mission showed that space-borne bacteria are three times more likely to cause harm to humans in space than humans on the ground, further work was obviously needed to address this potentially deadly barrier to the success of space missions.

The project leader of these experiments, Dr. Cheryl Nickerson (at the Center for Infectious Diseases and Vaccinology, Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute), hopes to find ways of blocking potentially deadly bacteria from multiplying so quickly in space and find out why zero-G is such a good environment for bacteria to grow. She headed the 2006 experiments on Atlantis.

We are very fortunate to get a follow up flight opportunity, because in spaceflight, you only get one shot for everything to go just right [...] We saw unique bacterial responses in flight and these responses are giving us new information about how Salmonella causes disease. NASA is giving us the opportunity to independently replicate the virulence studies of Salmonella typhimurium from our last shuttle experiment and to do a follow-up experiment to test our hypothesis about new ways this bacteria causes disease in this unique environment.” – Cheryl Nickerson.

This is obviously a high priority experiment for NASA and the future of manned missions into space. More precautions and safeguards need to be put into place so humankind can adapt to this new, microscopic threat, not from unknown alien bacteria, but from our own germs.

Source: EurekAlert


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Hello! My name is Ian O'Neill and I've been writing for the Universe Today since December 2007. I am a solar physics doctor, but my space interests are wide-ranging. Since becoming a science writer I have been drawn to the more extreme astrophysics concepts (like black hole dynamics), high energy physics (getting excited about the LHC!) and general space colonization efforts. I am also heavily involved with the Mars Homestead project (run by the Mars Foundation), an international organization to advance our settlement concepts on Mars. I also run my own space physics blog:, be sure to check it out!

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