Planet Earth

Is Space a Bad Influence on Good Bacteria?

80beatsBy Patrick MorganMay 18, 2011 7:50 AM
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What’s the News: Scientists have known for a while that if you put harmful bacteria into outer space, they tend to get even more harmful. Since that discovery, researchers have been itching to know if the zero gravity and radiation of space will have similar effects on beneficial bacteria. With Monday’s launch of Endeavor, scientists can finally try to answer that question: alongside the astronauts, NASA launched the first ever space-faring cephalopod, along with the bioluminescent microbe with which it has a symbiotic relationship, to see if their relationship can stand the stresses of space travel. “This is the first [study] to look at beneficial bacteria” in space, lead researcher Jamie Foster told New Scientist. The Squid and the Microbe:

  • Soon after baby bobtail squids (Euprymna scolopes) hatch, a glowing microbe known as Vibrio fischeri starts living inside their light organs. Squids use these glowing hitchhikers to shine light underneath them when they’re hunting, hiding their shadow so they can more easily sneak up on prey.

  • Taking advantage of this symbiotic relationship, NASA launched newborn squids into space that had yet to come into contact with the microbe. Once in space for 14 hours, astronauts will add the bacteria to the squidlets, allowing them to encounter each other for 28 hours before the baby squids are killed and sent back to Earth for further analysis.

What’s the Context:

  • Experiments on space shuttle Atlantis in 2006 revealed that the bacterium Salmonella typhimurium, which is already harmful to humans and other animals, was three times more likely to kill mice in space.

  • Other researchers have discovered that microgravity also causes gene changes in E. coli.

  • Humans have been launching animals into space for decades: Why send squids now? Most animals, including humans, have many species of beneficial microbes living in their guts; bobtail squids are helpful because they have one major symbiotic relationship with another bacterium, making the experiment that much simpler.

The Future Holds: Foster has conducted preliminary studies on Earth by exposing squids to bacteria in simulated microgravity environments. These studies revealed “problems with the uptake of bacteria by squid,” so it’s likely that the researchers will find the same in space.

Image: Wikimedia Commons / Nick Hobgood

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