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Bacteria in Space

June 25, 2013

So I recently heard about a group at RPI that’s studying how bacteria grow in the microgravity conditions of space flight. At first I was like, what the heck who cares about bacteria in space? But then I read a little more and found out that in reality bacteria is a bigger concern for astronauts during space flight than on Earth. Apparently, something about microgravity causes a mixture of reduced immune function for the human and increased pathogenic power in some bacteria, and there are increased rates of sickness and infection in astronauts while they’re playing around in space.

So anyway, the specific type of bacteria being investigated for this study was Pseudomonas aeruginosa. It normally lives all around you, and even on your skin, but sometimes it can get inside and cause lots of problems. It’s also been implicated in hot-tub rash, so that’s gross right? Anyway this bacteria was sent up into space and grown in vials of artificial urine.

Aw man

The pee was chosen for real reasons though, lol – mostly because it provides a physiologically relevant environment for bacteria living on the human body. Anyway, they let these cultures grow for a few days up in space and then took pictures of it to see how it was coming along. What they found was the formation of crazy biofilm structures never before seen on Earth.

Now, biofilms are normal and they consist of a whole bunch of microorganisms stuck together on a surface in a sort of slime. Dental plaque is a delightful example of a naturally occuring biofilm that you interact with on a daily basis. However, some biofilms can be dangerous to human health. The bacteria that was grown in space made this special new type that has been termed a “column and canopy” biofilm. They were also thicker and had more living cells in them than the more conventional mushroom-shaped or flat biofilms we see on Earth.

Wooseong Kim, et al, PLOS ONE, 2013

The goal now is to better understand how these biofilms form, what threats they can pose to astronauts, and how we might protect ourselves from them during space flight. Research in this area may also help us better understand pathogenic bacterial growth right here on Earth – possibly leading to new therapeutic avenues and drug targets someday.

So… hurray for pee cultures in space, AMIRITE?


From → Biology, SPACE

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