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

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: Astroengine.com, be sure to check it out!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ian O'Neill March 11, 2008, 6:55 PM

    To Don,

    You are totally right. Thanks for spotting that – I went off on a tangent and used the incorrect terminology… will make it clearer.

    The hazards of a physicist trying to interpret a biologist’s work ;-)

    Cheers, Ian

  • Yael Dragwyla March 11, 2008, 10:58 PM

    Fraser’s right. What is it that Calvin L. finds unrelated to articles about Universe Today — our space programs and space habitats? Our drive to explore and, eventually, colonize the universe? Does he think that life has nothing to do with the universe we’re part of? If so, where does he think the world we live on now is — in some other universe than the one observed and written about in this newsletter? Somebody seems to have problems connecting the dots . . .

  • Don Monroe March 11, 2008, 6:17 PM

    Although it is well worth following up on the previous studies, it is important to note that the increased virulence was *not* a result of mutation of the bacteria. Instead, the low-shear environment activated an alternative “program” in the salmonella, perhaps related to the one they use when they form biolfilms, that changed the production rates of various proteins. After returning to earth, they presumably reverted to their normal virulence.

  • Calvin L. March 11, 2008, 7:05 PM

    Why are most of these articles on universe today usually digressing from the title?

    To Don-
    I totally agree with Ian

  • Laszlo March 11, 2008, 7:07 PM

    Funny how I never read about results from shuttle experiments, they always claim to bring more sci-ex w launches though we’re not privy to the findings?
    I assume the 3x virulence is Not referring to our compromised immune system while in space. What then might augment microbial virility?
    First, they grow as cohesive unit in 3D. Biofilm sticks to a porous surface and others latch on both hor & ver. Our tissues scaffold similarly. Lotsa mediators are secreted, but the physical contact also dictates growth form, whether on agar in petri or in space. Our tissues also respond/grow from cell feedbacks: magnetic fields, ions & peptides, thermal, pressure(osmotic) & membrane signals. Unlike bacteria, cell nuclear DNA sequestered w/i nucleus. Bacteria can exchange nuclear material from plasmid w neighbors. The catalyst for the mutation, deletion, transposition, rearrangement, etc might be the radiation.
    I see less problem w fungi & parasites, which would be far more devastating than bacteria or virus. Mold will need moisture and parasites 2 or 3 cyst/larval/juvenile stages w hosts in insects, snails, rodents,etc.
    Although bacteria can multiply at theoretical 20min clip, closer to an hour’s more realistic. Bacteria mentioned require soil, water or diseased carcas. Anthrax extremely rare, almost extinct except for govn stockpiles. Remember bacteria depend on supernatant. They only adapt to their environment. You only find “bad bacter” on polluted dumps or diseased tissue, leachate being 1,000x more toxic than the garbage- due intermediary metabolites. When we create toxic waste, bacteria can only bioremediate it for us via their special enzymes through the ‘incendiary’ biometabolic pathway.
    So, you see Holmes, the question is Not the toxic microbes- we fed’em the toxins, but our ability to nurture our Good eco-friendly microbes in space. They’re the buggarz digesting our food, making co-enzymes & vitamins, fermentation, protecting us from other microbes, ad nauseum. If something in space were ever
    to harm these symbiotic, mutual or commensal organisms, then “Houston we have a problem!”

  • Fraser Cain March 11, 2008, 7:52 PM

    Why are most of these articles on universe today usually digressing from the title?

    But this is totally about space travel, and the current space shuttle mission. You think this has nothing to do with space?

  • Johnny Blues March 12, 2008, 3:30 AM

    The benefits of this research will probably impact earthly biology the most. My first question on reading this was “Does that mean one can produce distilled beverages 3X faster? Somebody crank up the brewery! Talk about a light beer….

  • AndyF March 12, 2008, 6:45 AM

    I’ve often wondered if bacteria exist on space borne debris, e.g. meteorites, dust, and if they can survive entry through Earth’s atmosphere. Could be an answer to some of the mysterious outbreaks we periodically experience.

    Incidentally, ‘bacterium’ is the singular, ‘bacteria’ is the plural. Just like the oft misused ‘phenomena’/’phenomenon’.

  • von Dawson's Express March 12, 2008, 11:07 AM

    Its ‘Endeavour’ not ‘Endeavor’…..

  • cathbad March 13, 2008, 1:42 PM

    Why are most of these articles on universe today usually digressing from the title?

    Cause the titles are teasers to lure into the ads.

  • Peter K March 14, 2008, 7:32 AM

    Holy cynicism, Cathbad!

    Being jaded is fine, but let the rest of us enjoy life without your hurtful history!

    Von Dawson, I’m Canadian so I spell Endeavour with a ‘u’. But do Americans? Not according to my dictionary.
    Careful who you’re correcting.

  • Peter K March 14, 2008, 7:34 AM

    And yes, I realize I capitalized your name there…von Dawson.

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