Super Space Germs Could Threaten Astronauts

Space Germs & The Effects They Have on Astronauts

Spaceflight can boost the virulence, or disease-causing potential of germs.

The weightlessness of outer space can make germs even nastier, increasing the dangers astronauts face, researchers say.

In a series of NASA space shuttle and ground-based experiments, NASA discovered that spaceflight actually boosted the virulence, or disease-causing potential, of the food-borne germ Salmonella.

These findings are of special concern for astronaut health during extended spaceflight missions. Space travel already weakens astronaut immunity, and these findings reveal that astronauts may have to further deal with the threat of disease-causing microbes that have boosted infectious abilities.

Microgravity apparently causes many genes linked with Salmonella's virulence to switch on and off in ways not seen in Earth-based labs. The same appears to happen with bacterial genes linked to resistance against stress and to the formation of fortress-like structures known as biofilms. A better understanding of which genes spaceflight alters could help design therapies to fight or prevent infection, helping protect people both in space and on Earth.

"We need to outpace infectious disease because we're losing the fight to the pathogens," says microbiologist Cheryl Nickerson at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute.

Nickerson was first to study the effects of spaceflight on pathogen virulence and the first to profile the infection process in human cells in spaceflight. Her PHOENIX experiment, the capsule will mark the first time a whole, living organism will be infected with a germ, and simultaneously monitored in real time during the infection process under microgravity conditions. PHOENIX will fly on the SpaceX Dragon capsule traveling to the space station later this year, and will infect a nematode worm with Salmonella.

"Nematodes are wonderful for studying Salmonella. They're basically one, long gastrointestinal tract from one end to the other," Nickerson said.

The significance of the results Nickerson and her colleagues have uncovered extends to more than just Salmonella. The researchers' experiments on the protein Hfq show that it apparently serves as a key regulator of gene responses to spaceflight conditions across a number of other bacterial species, including Pseudomonas aeruginosa, a common hospital-acquired infection.

"It is exciting to me that our work to discover how to keep astronauts healthy during spaceflight may translate into novel ways to prevent infectious diseases here on Earth," Nickerson said.


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douglas schwartz