The real story about space bacteria

By Ed Yong | April 26, 2011 5:00 am

Of late, space and bacteria have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. First, there was the wanton speculation about aliens that preceded the “arsenic life” controversy (NASA fanned the hype with a poorly described press conference). Then, the Journal of Cosmology made headlines with claims about fossilised bacteria in meteorites (NASA disavowed any participation).

But to me, the real story involving space, bacteria and NASA is very different, but far more important. The gist is simple: when bacteria are sent into space, they become better at causing disease. This poses a big problem for the long-term space missions planned in the future, but cracking that problem could have big benefits for public health back on the ground.

I’ve told this story in a feature for this month’s Wired UK, which has finally come online. The feature focuses on Cheryl Nickerson, an American scientist who is spearheading research in this field. I talk about Nickerson’s motivations, her latest fascinating results on how bacteria change in space, why this has already been a problem for space missions and why it’ll get worse, what it’s like to do science in space, and finally, what this means for human health back on Earth. Here’s a taster:

On September 18, 2006, aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis, astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper turned a crank and gave millions of bacteria an impromptu bath. She was holding a carefully sealed device composed of several glass barrels, each containing separate fluids that could be mixed at will. Carefully, she dunked some dormant bacteria into a nutritious broth that allowed them to grow, change and multiply. At the same time, scientists under the supervision of Cheryl Nickerson turned a similar crank in a room at Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, Florida, designed to mimic the Shuttle’s temperature and humidity. The scientists synchronised their efforts via real-time radio communication.

The co-ordinated experiment was a groundbreaking one: it demonstrated that bacteria turn into superbugs in the gravity-free environment of space, gathering together, gaining strength and becoming much more effective at causing disease. Science-fiction stories such as The Andromeda Strain love to play on the potential threat of alien infections, but earthly germs pose a far greater danger to human beings. With infectious powers bolstered by zero gravity, bacteria represent a significant risk to the health of space-faring humans, and it’s a problem that an agency such as Nasa will have to crack if it is to send astronauts on longer missions. NASA has been taking the problem seriously — the Atlantis experiment was just part of a larger research programme in space bacteria. By observing how bacteria react to the extreme environment of space, its researchers hope to learn more about how they behave in the human body.

“It gives us a new handle on how to develop new ways of treating, preventing or diagnosing infectious diseases,” says Nickerson, a feisty 49-year-old professor at Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute who is at the heart of the research and specialises in infectious bacteria and how they cause diseases. In an animated, south-western lilt, she explains her simple yet ambitious goals. “The bugs are winning the war. We always have to stay a step ahead.” She slaps her hand on the desk to stress the importance of every word. “It’s unacceptable that infectious diseases are the leading cause of death in young adults and children worldwide. We can do better and will do better.”

She wants nothing less than to find the next big weapons against infectious diseases.

I’m really proud of this. It’s the longest piece I’ve ever written and the first that combines some cool hardcore science with a profile of a scientist. I think it flows quite well, and it was given the lightest of edits; the words in the magazine are essentially mine. Thanks to Greg Williams at Wired for commissioning it, David Dobbs for giving some feedback on my draft, and Cheryl Nickerson, Duane Pierson, Mark Ott and Neal Pellis for their support.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Bacteria, Personal

Comments (9)

  1. Mark Houston

    What does this all mean to the trillions of bacteria living on human skin. What would happen if an astronaut cut themselves, in space, and the wound became infected ? How effective will antibiotics be, when used in a zero gravity environment ?

  2. I talk about this in the piece. There’s a worry about what harmless passenger bacteria would do in space (speculative, and being investigated) and how dormant infections would react (solid data). Also, antibiotics seem to be less effective in zero-grav.

  3. Mike B

    It’s interesting that you refer to fluid shear as the probable factor in bacterial virulence popping up. I once worked in a lab exploring tissue engineering of heart tissue, and one of the things we found was that if you dropped all the cells that make up the heart into one of those mentioned RWVs it would self-assemble into actual tissue-like structure (heart muscle with a layer of ECM on top then endothelial cells atop that). We had also hypothesized that it was fluid shear responsible (the idea being the cardiac muscles, being exposed to shear, would stimulate the other two layers to form on top; fit with the image of a tear in the cardiac lining stimulating a repair response thanks to the muscle being exposed to the bloodstream) though I left the lab before I could do much exploring of that myself, unfortunately.

    Kinda interesting a similar factor appears to hold here; the RWV was different from most fluid shear setups because the actual level was much lower compared to traditional fluid shear experiments (which in comparison were like spraying the target with a fire hose). Let you see fluid shear effects you might not see otherwise.

  4. Thanks for writing such an interesting piece! I loved it, and look forward to Dr. Nickerson’s papers…it adds a new dimension to being a carrier of organisms…Considering Mark Kelly’s time at a hospital/rehab center lately, I was glad to read about quarantining them before flight–his biome perhaps is different now…

  5. Hey Ed, the 4 paragraphs following the sentence “Many of these conditions are relevant to what bacteria encounter on a daily basis in our bodies here on Earth,” Nickerson says.”

    Are a bit muddled. It looks like there were 2 drafts and you forgot to delete one. It’s great so far, but I wanted to point this out as soon as I saw it.

  6. kang

    Congrats for this paper, it’s really great job !

  7. The Wired article is well-written but not-so-well edited. A sizeable chunk from “Many of these conditions are relevant” all the way to “Nickerson found that Hfq becomes” is accidentally repeated. Also, the clause beginning “many microbes react to space flight” doesn’t make sense, which I’d guess is because some text is missing. I have no idea if you can correct it now that it’s published.

  8. Those mistakes don’t appear in the actual print version. Someone’s just uploaded it weirdly onto the website. I’ve pinged them an email

  9. nice piece, i love reading any article related to science just like science-fiction stories but not like the idea of Andromeda Strain come into reality, i guess this research will give better understanding of extra terrestial life if it really exist but i find this research more of use in medicine, i hope so especially in the field of health improvement.


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