Is Space a Bad Influence on Good Bacteria?

By Patrick Morgan | May 18, 2011 8:50 am

What’s the News: Scientists have known for a while that if you put harmful bacteria into outer space, they tend to get even more harmful. Since that discovery, researchers have been itching to know if the zero gravity and radiation of space will have similar effects on beneficial bacteria. With Monday’s launch of Endeavor, scientists can finally try to answer that question: alongside the astronauts, NASA launched the first ever space-faring cephalopod, along with the bioluminescent microbe with which it has a symbiotic relationship, to see if their relationship can stand the stresses of space travel. “This is the first [study] to look at beneficial bacteria” in space, lead researcher Jamie Foster told New Scientist.

The Squid and the Microbe:

  • Soon after baby bobtail squids (Euprymna scolopes) hatch, a glowing microbe known as Vibrio fischeri starts living inside their light organs. Squids use these glowing hitchhikers to shine light underneath them when they’re hunting, hiding their shadow so they can more easily sneak up on prey.
  • Taking advantage of this symbiotic relationship, NASA launched newborn squids into space that had yet to come into contact with the microbe. Once in space for 14 hours, astronauts will add the bacteria to the squidlets, allowing them to encounter each other for 28 hours before the baby squids are killed and sent back to Earth for further analysis.

What’s the Context:

  • Experiments on space shuttle Atlantis in 2006 revealed that the bacterium Salmonella typhimurium, which is already harmful to humans and other animals, was three times more likely to kill mice in space.
  • Other researchers have discovered that microgravity also causes gene changes in E. coli.
  • Humans have been launching animals into space for decades: Why send squids now? Most animals, including humans, have many species of beneficial microbes living in their guts; bobtail squids are helpful because they have one major symbiotic relationship with another bacterium, making the experiment that much simpler.

The Future Holds: Foster has conducted preliminary studies on Earth by exposing squids to bacteria in simulated microgravity environments. These studies revealed “problems with the uptake of bacteria by squid,” so it’s likely that the researchers will find the same in space.

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Nick Hobgood

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, Space
  • Anatomy Student

    How are they certain that the microbes are actually more harmful? Could it also be that space-faring earth organisms’ immune systems are simply compromised by the high unfamiliar stress of microgravity, as well as the trip to get there?

    And the gene changes in E. coli, they didn’t mention whether they were “improvements” to make it more infectious or rather the gene changes were related to anything else.

    Very interesting though!!

  • Zachary

    I have to agree Anatomy Student, space travel being as physically taxing as it is you would think stress would be the major factor. However it’s so obvious that there must be a cause for them not citing it.

  • Ed Yong

    I wrote an entire feature for Wired about why bacteria become more harmful in space. Yes, the host’s immune system takes a hit, but the bugs get more virulent too. The reasons why are very interesting. More here:

  • azbearhuntr

    Did they also take the mice into space or did they bring the ecoli back and introduce them to the mice hosts who stayed grounded…might be a better way to test these theories, just a thought!

  • Sherry M

    Cthulu in spaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaace!

  • Wesley

    We survive by maintaining a delicate balance against bacteria. Anything that upsets that balance almost always favors the bacteria. They have the numbers, genetic diversity and ability to evolve faster. It doesn’t suprise me that zero gravity upsets that balance and favors infectious disease, the only question is exactly how and why and what can we do about it.

    The future may hold the development of strains of ‘good space bacteria’ that astronauts take before and during missions. Bacteria that promote health in zero gravity and hold the nastier strains at bay.

    Since we evolved in earths gravity for billions of years, it makes sense that we’ll always have to invest in science dedicated to the health of effects of living in space if we’re going to make progress in exploring and living in space.

    On a side note wouldn’t it be cool to find/develop bacteria that are able to live in some of the extreme environments found on other planets and moons in our solar system and ‘plant’ them there to see what happens? To see if they are able to survive and adapt, to create an ecosystem. The first step to colonizing a dead planet should be to make it a living planet.

    (Of course we should try to make sure it really is a dead planet before we start tinkering..)

  • Brian Too

    This is nothing to worry about. The astronauts become much more hostile and aggressive as their time in space increases too. Therefore the bacteria’s change in net lethality is entirely neutralized!



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