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Planet Earth

The real story about space bacteria

Not Exactly Rocket ScienceBy Ed YongApril 26, 2011 2:00 PM

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Of late, space and bacteria have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. First, there was the wanton speculation about aliens that preceded the “arsenic life” controversy (NASA fanned the hype with a poorly described press conference). Then, the Journal of Cosmology made headlines with claims about fossilised bacteria in meteorites (NASA disavowed any participation). But to me, the real story involving space, bacteria and NASA is very different, but far more important. The gist is simple: when bacteria are sent into space, they become better at causing disease. This poses a big problem for the long-term space missions planned in the future, but cracking that problem could have big benefits for public health back on the ground. I’ve told this story in a feature for this month’s Wired UK, which has finally come online. The feature focuses on Cheryl Nickerson, an American scientist who is spearheading research in this field. I talk about Nickerson’s motivations, her latest fascinating results on how bacteria change in space, why this has already been a problem for space missions and why it’ll get worse, what it’s like to do science in space, and finally, what this means for human health back on Earth. Here’s a taster:

On September 18, 2006, aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis, astronaut Heidemarie Stefanyshyn-Piper turned a crank and gave millions of bacteria an impromptu bath. She was holding a carefully sealed device composed of several glass barrels, each containing separate fluids that could be mixed at will. Carefully, she dunked some dormant bacteria into a nutritious broth that allowed them to grow, change and multiply. At the same time, scientists under the supervision of Cheryl Nickerson turned a similar crank in a room at Kennedy Space Center in Orlando, Florida, designed to mimic the Shuttle's temperature and humidity. The scientists synchronised their efforts via real-time radio communication. The co-ordinated experiment was a groundbreaking one: it demonstrated that bacteria turn into superbugs in the gravity-free environment of space, gathering together, gaining strength and becoming much more effective at causing disease. Science-fiction stories such as The Andromeda Strain love to play on the potential threat of alien infections, but earthly germs pose a far greater danger to human beings. With infectious powers bolstered by zero gravity, bacteria represent a significant risk to the health of space-faring humans, and it's a problem that an agency such as Nasa will have to crack if it is to send astronauts on longer missions. NASA has been taking the problem seriously -- the Atlantis experiment was just part of a larger research programme in space bacteria. By observing how bacteria react to the extreme environment of space, its researchers hope to learn more about how they behave in the human body. "It gives us a new handle on how to develop new ways of treating, preventing or diagnosing infectious diseases," says Nickerson, a feisty 49-year-old professor at Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute who is at the heart of the research and specialises in infectious bacteria and how they cause diseases. In an animated, south-western lilt, she explains her simple yet ambitious goals. "The bugs are winning the war. We always have to stay a step ahead." She slaps her hand on the desk to stress the importance of every word. "It's unacceptable that infectious diseases are the leading cause of death in young adults and children worldwide. We can do better and will do better." She wants nothing less than to find the next big weapons against infectious diseases.

I’m really proud of this. It’s the longest piece I’ve ever written and the first that combines some cool hardcore science with a profile of a scientist. I think it flows quite well, and it was given the lightest of edits; the words in the magazine are essentially mine. Thanks to Greg Williams at Wired for commissioning it, David Dobbs for giving some feedback on my draft, and Cheryl Nickerson, Duane Pierson, Mark Ott and Neal Pellis for their support.

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