Astronauts May Be Able to Grow Their Own Medicine from Fungus

Thursday, 07 April 2016 - 6:17PM
Thursday, 07 April 2016 - 6:17PM
Astronauts May Be Able to Grow Their Own Medicine from Fungus
Could fungus be the key to getting humans to Mars? A new experiment may allow astronauts to grow their own medicines in space during long-term missions.

When astronauts eventually take extended trips to deep space locations, like Mars for example, unpredictable medical events are more likely to occur over the course of a year or two. As a result, it may be necessary for astronauts to have access to custom-made medicine for emergencies that come up. 

Opening quote
"For food you can predict exactly how much the astronauts will need to eat," study leader Clay Wang told Popular Science. "Medicine you can't predict."
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As a result, researchers from USC are attempting to send several samples of fungi to the ISS on a SpaceX rocket. The species is called Aspergillus nidulans, and since we've mapped virtually its entire genome, it is extremely conducive to biomedical research. We know generally which compounds the fungus produces on Earth, but scientists believe that under the unique stresses of a space environment, different genes may be turned on that produce completely different compounds, or different amounts of the known compounds.

Opening quote
"[When comparing the fungus to a factory,] it's like a lot of machines in the factory have been turned off, so we don't know what they make," said Wang. "In space they might get turned on."
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This is significant because the fungus could potentially produce compounds needed to make medicines; this species already produces compounds that fight low bone density, for example, which is a common problem among astronauts who spend extended periods of time in space. Depending on its efficiency at producing this compound in a low-gravity environment, scientists could selectively breed strains in order to increase the amounts of this compound the fungus produces. 

The real coup, however, will be genetically engineering fungi that can produce entirely different compounds. For the experiment, the scientists will compare the samples that are sent to space with samples on Earth to determine how the expression of different genes impacts the fungus' production ability. In the future, they could potentially engineer the fungus to produce compounds that could make everything from antibacterials to cancer drugs.

Opening quote
"The big breakthrough is synthetic biology, the ability to reprogram these organisms," said Wang. "Not only can we reprogram them, but we can manipulate them pretty easily."
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It may be a long time before researchers can manipulate the fungus to the point that it can produce such a variety of compounds, but this is a promising start. Someday relatively soon, astronauts could have access to made-to-order medicines.
Science
Space

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