NASA Is Launching a Dangerous Strain of E. Coli Into Orbit

Friday, 10 November 2017 - 7:45PM
Space
NASA
Friday, 10 November 2017 - 7:45PM
NASA Is Launching a Dangerous Strain of E. Coli Into Orbit
NASA
NASA's newest astronauts are a little unusual. It's not every day that a colony of bacteria get the chance to orbit the Earth.

In order to fully prepare for the disastrous event of an astronaut accidentally bringing E. coli onto the International Space Station, NASA is launching a new experiment - which just so happens to involve deliberately bringing E. coli onto the International Space Station. What could possibly go wrong?

The experiment will look at how different strains of E.coli - including an antibiotic resistant super strain of the disease - will be affected by time in zero gravity. Many micro-organisms thrive in a weightless environment, and can grow far more potent and powerful than they would be on Earth.

Thus, NASA is looking to get information on the disease in a safe, controlled experiment that involves a culture of E.coli that are locked away safely in a storage container named the "E. coli AntiMicrobial Satellite" (EcAMSat for short), far away from the food preparation areas aboard the station.

According to NASA's official press release:

Opening quote
"EcAMSat will investigate spaceflight effects on bacterial antibiotic resistance and its genetic basis. Bacterial antibiotic resistance may pose a danger to astronauts in microgravity, where the immune response is weakened. Scientists believe that the results of this experiment could help design effective countermeasures to protect astronauts' health during long-duration human space missions."
Closing quote


The experiment will test the tiny little bacteria in a variety of possible settings, starving and feeding them to try and find out just how adaptable they are while floating in space. From this, scientists hope to be able to build an understanding of what would go wrong if E.coli were accidentally unleashed onto the station.

Micro-organisms are proving to be one of the biggest challenges to modern space exploration. In spite of our best efforts, we're not particularly good at completely eradicating all bacteria from objects that we send out into space, which means that any probe, shuttle, or rover could potentially be carrying billions of little Earth bugs out into the solar system and beyond.

This has happened before - it seems that the Curiosity rover was probably contaminated in some way, and the Cassini probe was deliberately crashed into Saturn in an attempt vaporize any germs that might exist on its metallic casing. The danger with these micro-organisms is that they could dramatically alter local environments or, if they exist, eco-systems. To aliens living on faraway worlds, a lot of the germs we've built up a solid immunity to would be absolutely deadly.

With experiments like EcAMSat, though, the pressing issue is more about protecting human health. Regular E. coli is bad enough when there isn't a convenient Walgreens nearby to pick up medicine from. Mutant E. coli that's capable of resisting bacteria is even worse, and if we're going to embrace a future that involves more space travel, we need to be sure we're not giving dangerous diseases the opportunity to grow stronger while infecting a small number of people that are trapped in a tight, controlled space.

If we're lucky, what's learned from this experiment on the ISS will also hold benefits for people back on Terra Firma. According to Louis Stodieck, the director of a previous study into E.coli in space:

Opening quote
"The low gravity of space provides a unique test bed for developing new techniques, products and processes that can benefit not only astronauts, but also people on Earth. In space, for example, scientists can learn more about biochemical changes in various cells and organisms that the force of gravity on Earth may be masking."
Closing quote


So be sure to take a moment to salute these brave little astro-germs. Their journey into space may help us to find better ways to treat all strains of E.coli, not just ones that have been mutated in zero gravity.
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