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The Fascinating Field of Space Microbiology

Sep 17, 2018

Space, the final frontier.....for microbiology.

Understanding how micro-organisms behave in space can help us in more ways than one. It can help us better understand bacterial / fungal mutation, it can assist in medical breakthroughs on Earth and can help us make space travel safer. 

Due to many years of different crews of astronauts living inside the sealed environment that is the space station, multiple microbes have also taken up residence there.

Microbiological finds on the space station include Staphylococcus aureus, Staphylococcus epidermidis, Burkholderia, Micrococcus luteus and Aspergillus.1

Understanding how microbes survive and thrive in space is important. Recent research finds that microgravity can cause some bacteria to become more virulent by altering the expression of genes. This leads to questions of how other bacteria is affected by and even evolved by space travel.2

Proving once again that space can change the virulence of bacteria, an experiment in 2006 during a shuttle mission showed that salmonella grown in space was more deadly to mice than the same strain grown on Earth.3

The above changes in virulence are not the only differences spotted in microbes in space when  compared to those on Earth. According to Luis Zea, a researcher in aerospace engineering, other different behaviours have been witnessed. These include "enhanced growth", "improved biofilm formation" and greater antibiotic resistance.4

Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory have been studying the effects of space travel on micro-organisms. During their research, they observed radiation resistant bacteria. This is quite significant as senior researcher Kasthuri Venkateswaran expresses, that there is potentially a double threat to space travelers on missions such as long duration trips to Mars. This is because astronaut's immune systems can be adversely affected by microgravity and radiation. Certain micro-organisms not only tolerate these conditions but can also thrive and become more virulent.5 The combination of the two could prove deadly.

It's not all bad news though, Dr Ventkateswaran and his team have discovered that some fungi may be changed by microgravity / radiation in a positive way. They could produce compounds that could be used for medical applications such as cancer treatment.6

Creating better medical treatments is the focus of several space microbiology projects. Observing bacterial mutations in space can help us create better drugs to deal with current and potential future mutated strains. This is one of the ideas behind sending MRSA to the space station. As lead researcher on the project Dr. Anita Goel told CNN:

"I have this hypothesis that microgravity will accelerate the mutation patterns. If we can use microgravity as an accelerator to fast-forward and get a sneak preview of what these mutations will look like, then we can essentially build smarter drugs on Earth." 7

All of the recent research will assist future missions, particularly any missions to Mars as laboratories will be a must. Bringing contaminants to another planet, especially ones that could become more virulent is a potential real life scenario.

Lastly, a word on tardigardes (water bears), the microscopic creatures that can survive all sorts of extreme conditions including space / radiation. Researchers have pinpointed a specific protein that may be assisting the tardigrades in surviving high levels of radiation.
The protein is called Dsup and in addition to shielding cells from radiation, it also repairs damage caused by radiation.
Experiments have shown that Dsup has also shown signs of being able to repair damaged human cells. The research is in its infancy but Dsup could be used to help protect astronauts on future space missions, particularly for long range space travel such as missions to Mars.8

5 & 6.