28Apr2017

Can NASA Prevent This Superbug From Surviving in Space?

Bacteria found to thrive better in space than on Earth

Bacteria found to thrive better in space than on Earth

There are plenty of things you need to take with you on a space voyage — oxygen, water, food and of course, your space suit. The one thing you want to try to leave behind is bacteria. Megan Ray Nichols explains why.

Its because single-celled organisms act very strangely once you get them out into low-gravity, high-radiation environments. In spite of the vigorous sterilization of clean rooms where the space-faring equipment is manufactured, there is one bacteria that still manages to survive — SAFR-032.

What Is SAFR-032?

Bacillus Pumilus SAFR-032 is a spore-forming bacteria only found in one place — in the clean rooms where equipment is built to travel to space. It is able to survive alcohol sterilization, high-heat steam sterilization and just about anything else the universe can throw at it. It has even developed a method for surviving potentially fatal radiation.

SAFR builds up shields around its core DNA when exposed to unfavorable conditions. They basically build themselves a biological bunker, shut down their metabolism until conditions become favorable again, and ride it out.

Strange Things Happen Out There

It’s impossible to keep all the microbes off our space shuttles, but that doesn’t stop researchers from trying. This is because microorganisms tend to get very weird when they hit microgravity. Bacteria thrive in these low-gravity environments, growing faster and in some cases becoming even more virulent than a sample of bacteria grown here on the ground.

One experiment sent a sample of salmonella into space on the Shuttle Atlantis in 2006. Once the sample landed, the team infected a series of mice with the space-bug and then compared them to mice infected with Earth-grown salmonella. The researchers found the mice infected with space salmonella got sick faster and died faster than the homegrown variety.

Keep Our Bacteria Home

While protecting astronauts from space bacteria is important, it’s not the only reason we’re struggling with bacteria like SAFR-032. We also have to prevent our astronauts from carrying this or any other bacteria to other planets. That’s what the Office of Planetary Protection was created to do.

Essentially, the OPP exists to stop us from potentially contaminating alien environments with terrestrial bacteria. This is part of the Outer Space Treaty signed in 1963 by the members of the United Nations.

Image result for bacteria free spacecraft

Bacteria free spacecraft is the ultimate aim of any space-faring nation.

We have no idea what impact bacteria from Earth could possibly have on other planets, so ships and other devices sent to other planets or moons have to be as sterile as possible.

Studying the Smallest Things

For the most part, we understand how and why microorganisms like bacteria react the way they do on Earth. We can study them, adapt to them if they change, and, in cases like e .coli and salmonella, treat the conditions they cause. As we start to expand out into the solar system, though, these bacteria will change, and we will need to be able to adapt to these changes as they occur.

This is why unmanned missions such as the Falcon supply runs to and from the International Space Station are invaluable tools for scientists trying to study how bacteria changes when exposed to microgravity. These unmanned capsules are the perfect environment to allow us to see what changes occur in a variety of different bacteria.

The human body is also full of bacteria, many of which are essential to the function of a healthy human body. Manned missions could be used to determine how the body’s bacterial flora changes. Humans in space are exposed to elevated levels of radiation, extended periods of microgravity, and extreme g-forces, all of which could have a positive or negative effect on the bacteria within the body.

When we think about space travel, we tend to think about the big picture — where we’re going and how long it will take us to get there. It’s important not to neglect the little things, too, like the bacteria that might be hitching a ride with us out into the cosmos.

photoSupplied by: Megan Ray Nichols – Freelance Science Writer

 

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