What Makes Bacteria So Happy? Staph Takes Flight in Space

July 6, 2011

"Space Shuttle Atlantis"

Staphylococcus aureus bacteria Plans a Trip to Space on the Space Shuttle Atlantis

If you’re looking for something fun and interesting to read today, you should take a look at Michael Lemonick’s article “Supergerms, On Board the Final Shuttle: Studying Why Bacteria Thrives in Space.”  The article appears today in the online Science edition of Time, July 6, 2011.

This is a fascinating article about NASA’s plans to send eight vials of Pseudomonas aeruginosa or Staphylococcus aureus bacteria along for the ride when the space shuttle Atlantis takes off on Friday for the shuttle program’s final flight.

[Cynthia] Collins and [Jon] Dordick are scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. — a microbiologist and a nanotechnologist, respectively — and when the space shuttle Atlantis lifts off on Friday for the shuttle program’s final flight, their experiment could be crucial to the health of future astronauts. There’s evidence from earlier spaceflights that virulent bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella can grow stronger and faster in microgravity. Given enough time, they can form biofilms, slimy mats of bacteria that are highly resistant to antimicrobials. If the films get inside the body, riding on catheters or other medical equipment, the human im[m]une system may be powerless against them. That’s true even when the immune system is functioning at its best, but in space, for reasons nobody fully understands, the body’s disease defenses are weaker.

The shuttle mission will last one week.  The plans are to compare “how the space- and ground-based samples grow,” to determine “what it is about microgravity that makes bacteria so happy.”  The researchers will be modulating oxygen, nutrients, and other factors.

Source: Michael Lemonick.  Supergerms, On Board the Final Shuttle: Studying Why Bacteria Thrives in Space.  Time, July 6, 2011.

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