In Space No One Can Hear You Sneeze

The great­est threat to space travel may be the com­mon cold

Newsweek International - - NEWSWEEK - BY HANNAH OS­BORNE @han­nah_os­borne

Movie, sci­en­tists have dis­cov­ered that bac­te­ria shape-shift. In ex­per­i­ments on board the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion (ISS), they found that E. coli adapts so it is harder to kill with an­tibi­otics. The dis­cov­ery po­ten­tially poses a big prob­lem for space travel: On long-du­ra­tion mis­sions, we will need an­tibi­otics to treat sick as­tro­nauts. But if bac­te­ria are able to quickly de­velop re­sis­tance to them, com­mon in­fec­tions could be­come deadly in space.

Sci­en­tists have known for some time that bac­te­ria be­have dif­fer­ently in space com­pared with how they do on Earth—it takes higher con­cen­tra­tions of an­tibi­otics to kill them, for ex­am­ple. The ex­act rea­son for this, how­ever, is un­known. That’s why a team of re­searchers led by Luis Zea from the Univer­sity of Colorado, Boul­der, sent E.

coli sam­ples up to the ISS to com­pare how the bac­terium grew and re­sponded to the an­tibi­otic gen­tam­icin sul­fate, which kills it on Earth. Their find­ings, pub­lished in the jour­nal Fron­tiers in Mi­cro­bi­ol­ogy, showed that bac­te­ria cells be­came sig­nif­i­cantly smaller, while their num­bers vastly in­creased, when com­pared with sam­ples on Earth.

The space sam­ples also devel­oped a thicker cell wall and mem­brane, which the team be­lieves helped the bac­terium pro­tect it­self from the an­tibi­otic.

An­other find­ing was that the space E. coli formed in clumps more than it does on Earth, which the sci­en­tists sug­gest is a de­fen­sive ma­neu­ver to sac­ri­fice the outer cells to pro­tect the in­ner ones. This may be re­lated to the for­ma­tion of biofilms, mul­ti­cel­lu­lar com­mu­ni­ties that build up on sur­faces over time. While not nec­es­sar­ily dan­ger­ous, if bac­te­ria form as a biofilm on part of a space sta­tion, they could end up in­fect­ing as­tro­nauts on board.

“By de­fault, bac­te­ria will ac­com­pany hu­mans in our ex­plo­ration of space,” the re­searchers write. In­cluded within our mi­cro­biome are op­por­tunis­tic pathogens, which do not cause dis­ease in healthy peo­ple but can cause in­fec­tion when an im­mune sys­tem is com­pro­mised.

Be­cause im­mune sup­pres­sion is known to oc­cur dur­ing space­flight, the study find­ings are par­tic­u­larly con­cern­ing. As a re­sult, the au­thors say, fur­ther re­search will be needed to as­sess the risk posed to as­tro­nauts on long­du­ra­tion mis­sions.

In the mean­time, as­tro­nauts should pack a han­kie.

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